By Brid Peoples
Abortion services have now become available to women living in the Western
Trust area after being unavailable for nearly eighteen months. On 4th October the Western Health and Social care Trust announced that the service was, “live and is available to those living in the trust area”.
Abortion services were previously “paused” in April 2021, with the Trust announcing that their early medical abortion services would be suspended, as it was “no longer sustainable” to continue. This left women in the Western Trust, which encompasses a total population of 300,000, having to travel to England to gain access to or purchase, mifepristone, and misoprostol online. “We apologise that this service had not been in place within the Western Trust for the past year,” a spokesperson has said.
BBC Radio Foyle previously announced that as they understood it, services were meant to recommence in July of this year. It is unclear as to why this date was pushed back three months when the Trust described at the time as a “temporary pause” in the service.
Early Medical Abortion (EMA) Services are still, however, only limited to pregnancy up to 10 weeks.
The campaigning group, Alliance for Choice Derry, has reacted positively to the recommencement of services. They have spent the last few years calling for wider access to abortion for women living in Derry and the wider area. In a statement to The Gown, spokesperson Bethany Moore has said:
“Alliance for Choice Derry are delighted to see the reinstatement of early medical abortion services (EMA) in the Western Trust area. Everyone can now access early medical abortion services freely, safely, legally, and locally in our Trust. This is invaluable to the 1-3 people a week which we see seeking these services.
We note and appreciate the Western Trust’s apology at the lack of services for the past year and a half. It is about time the service returns – it is frustrating that it took this long. There now needs to be an increased effort to end the 8-week waiting list for the contraceptive implant, and 6-9 month waiting list for the coil. Reproductive and sexual health services are essential healthcare services and must be treated as such.
The reinstatement of these services is a direct result of grassroots feminist activism in Derry. We are so proud of our campaigners and activists, who have kept the pressure on the Trust to reinstate the service since it ceased operation in April 2021. Our members have been on the ground, directly helping people access safe and legal abortion pills, supporting them through the process for the past 18 months. Access to abortion telemedicine is especially essential for the most marginalised in society, including disabled people, people living in rural areas and those in coercive relationships.
We are especially grateful to our friends at Women Help Women who have been helping local people access abortion pills. We are also very thankful to providers in both the Northern and Southern Trusts, who have been helping people from our trust access EMA since April of this year.
This entire situation highlights the immediate need for commissioning of full abortion services. Alliance for Choice Derry continue to call on Robin Swann and the Department of Health to finally do so. As we approach the 3rd anniversary of decriminalisation of abortion in the North, it is shameful that 3 out of 5 healthcare trusts have ceased their EMA services at different intervals, due to lack of funding. It is shameful that 371 people from here travelled to England for abortion care during the pandemic. It is shameful that we are still waiting for the access we fought so hard for.”
In the larger context, there is still widespread confusion regarding access to abortion among the women of Northern Ireland. Amnesty International carried out a recent poll of 1,000 Northern Irish adults this month, which found a deep lack of knowledge of laws and rights surrounding abortion. Only 10% of women knew how to access abortion services
and only 47% were aware that abortion had been decriminalised.
This step forward for abortion rights comes amidst a climate of steady rollback and undercutting of access to abortion worldwide. In July 2022, the Supreme Court of the US ruled that an individual no longer had a constitutional right to abortion, reversing previous case law that had stood for nearly fifty years.
In Europe, there has also been a tightening of access. Whilst abortion remains legal in nearly every European country, access is limited in some of the more conservative states.
In Poland, an EU member state, legislation introduced in 2021 requires that abortion can only be carried out in cases of rape, incest, or when a women’s life is threatened. However, only a handful of cases are carried out every year on the grounds of rape. In late 2021, the Ministry of Health, under the direction of the far-right Law and Justice party (PiS), announced its intention to introduce new directives that would require doctors to report all pregnancies and miscarriages to a government register.
Retrospectively, it may seem that much progression has been made in terms of expanding women’s access to abortive services and advice. However, this is not the case. It must be noted that further development is pending as the general opinion surrounding abortion remains sensitive in many cultural and political contexts. Within Northern Ireland’s contested political arena, the topic remains particularly sensitive, and conserving peace is deemed to take precedence over the fundamental healthcare of women in our local communities.