Despite objections from socially conservative politicians in the British-run province, the British government announced on Thursday that it was planning to provide abortion services in Northern Ireland.
Britain’s parliament voted in 2019 to legalize abortion in Northern Ireland, which was one of the last regions in Western Europe to have a ban at the time, and last year directed Belfast’s devolved provincial government to provide liberal abortion services by the end of this month.
The government believes the Northern Ireland Department for Health will miss the end of March deadline and is preparing regulations that would allow London to directly commission abortion services in the province if urgent progress is not made.
“I firmly believe women and girls must have access to safe, high-quality abortion care in Northern Ireland. It is unacceptable that access to basic abortion healthcare is not available as it is across the rest of the UK,” Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis said in a statement.
“It has become clear the Northern Ireland Department of Health will fail to commission abortion services in full by the deadline I set out last year despite being given every opportunity to do so.”
The secretary of state said the British government was setting up a small team in the Northern Ireland Office with relevant health experience to work directly with the Northern Irish Department of Health on the issue.
The planned regulations would compel the Department of Health to make abortion services available as soon as is reasonably practicable, and remove the need for approval by the devolved government before the services can be commissioned.
The secretary of state will have the powers to intervene directly following elections for the devolved provincial government in May.
Northern Ireland’s largest party, the conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is opposed to abortion and has vowed to oppose the development of any abortion services in Northern Ireland.