By David Young (PA)
A telemedicine abortion option is set to be introduced in Northern Ireland when services are fully rolled out, the Secretary of State has indicated.
Brandon Lewis said provision for a telemedicine service was not currently in the region’s abortion regulations but he was minded to add it.
The treatment option allows women to take a medical abortion pill following a virtual consultation with a clinical professional.
“I’m aware that the current regulations do not directly allow for telemedicine, but I am going to assess this issue and I am minded to take action to support women in Northern Ireland having the same access as women across the United Kingdom,” Mr Lewis said.
The Northern Ireland Secretary was appearing before a Westminster committee to debate a recent law change that empowered him to directly commission abortion services in the region.
He has not yet taken that step, but the Conservative MP told members of the delegated legislative committee on Thursday that he expected to use the powers “relatively soon”.
The Secretary of State had given Health Minister Robin Swann a number of weeks to indicate whether he was willing to commission the services himself.
Mr Lewis said he did not expect Mr Swann to take the action so he was preparing to intervene on the issue.
But he would not be drawn when asked by Alliance MP Stephen Farry to commit to an exact date.
Abortion legislation in Northern Ireland was liberalised in 2019 following laws passed by Westminster at a time when the powersharing government at Stormont had collapsed.
But while individual health trusts in Northern Ireland currently offer services on an ad-hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services due to a political impasse at Stormont on the issue.
The DUP, which is opposed to abortion, had refused to agree to the issue being tabled on the agenda of the ministerial executive.
The Government laid regulations at Parliament last month that removed the need for the Department of Health to seek the approval of the wider executive to commission the services.
It also gave Mr Lewis the power to step in and commission the services himself if the devolved health minister failed to do so.
“I do not expect the Minister for Health and the Department of Health to take this forward,” he told the committee.
“I would encourage him to do so, I’m still going to give him a little bit more space to do that, but my experience over the last two years is I think he fundamentally won’t, and I expect to be using these powers relatively soon, sadly, but I will do that, and I don’t want anybody to be under any misconception about that.”
After the regulations were laid last month, Mr Swann said he would seek legal advice on the issue.
Several DUP MPs spoke in opposition against the Government’s move during the committee debate on Thursday.
DUP MP Carla Lockhart said Mr Lewis should not be intervening on a devolved issue.
“It is clear that these regulations fly in the face of democratic accountability,” she said.
“Constitutionally they set a dangerous precedent, financially they are unaccountable and politically they remove democratic accountability from the person who made the decision and ignore the views of the people of Northern Ireland.
“It is deeply worrying that the Secretary of State wants to go even further with his indication he will introduce telemedicine abortions.
“He says it is his moral duty to bring in these regulations. The people in Northern Ireland will make their own judgment on the morality of these regulations.”
The committee voted to retrospectively approve the regulations by 11 votes to two.