By Jonathan McCambridge (PA)
The commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland gives rise to the “most destructive and liberal regime in these islands”, a church leader has said.
Rev Trevor Gribben, clerk of the General Assembly and general secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, called the decision by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris “not only deeply regrettable, but deplorable”.
Mr Heaton-Harris said on Friday that he had written to the Department of Health to instruct them to formally commission abortion services in the region, in line with his statutory duties.
He said he anticipated services becoming available in the coming months.
Mr Gribben said: “Today, hard-pressed doctors and nurses begin a new week caring for people across a desperately under-funded and pressurised NHS in Northern Ireland, a week that also sees the dawn of fully commissioned and funded abortion services.
“The fact that Mr Heaton-Harris has chosen to give life to the most destructive liberal abortion regime in these islands is not only deeply regrettable, but deplorable.
“It is a sad and distressing day for everyone who values the sanctity of life, and is devastating for those who will not live to experience it.
“There are many challenges facing Northern Ireland and its health service in particular, including lengthy waiting lists, staff recruitment and retention, and other services that are under-resourced.
“It is particularly curious to note that no interventions appear to be forthcoming in these areas – no ‘ring-fencing’ of resources for the real priorities of those who work in and are served by our NHS.
“Given the pressures on education, within the police service, infrastructure projects, and with the energy support payment still not available to people in Northern Ireland, it is not only astonishing, but also deeply disappointing, that the secretary of state has taken this decision while seemingly unable to take others around the prioritisation of budgets, passing what is a political responsibility instead on to permanent secretaries.”
Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when the powersharing government at Stormont had collapsed.
While individual health trusts have offered limited services on an ad-hoc basis since then, Northern Ireland’s Department of Health never centrally commissioned the rollout of full services due to a political impasse at Stormont.
In May 2021, the Government intervened and laid regulations at Parliament that removed the need for the Department of Health to seek the approval of the wider executive to commission the services.
It also gave the secretary of state the power to step in and commission the services himself – a step Mr Heaton-Harris took on Friday.
The current powersharing crisis means that civil servants are currently running Stormont departments.
Mr Gribben added: “Whether the secretary of state was obliged to take this action now is debatable and a matter of interpretation.
“We should not forget that 79% of people responding to the UK Government’s 2019 abortion proposals opposed the introduction of these measures.
“Not only have these developments been an abuse of the fragile devolution settlement, but their genesis came about by a shameful manipulation of the democratic processes of the House of Commons in 2019.
“There are many staff across the health and social care sector who will not want to participate in the abortion process for reasons of conscience – Christian staff, those of other faiths and none.
“There appears to be little guidance, or instruction in this regard.”
An NIO spokesperson said: “The UK Government and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is fully committed to ensuring that the recommendations in the specific Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (the CEDAW Report) are implemented in Northern Ireland.
“The Government has given the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Department of Health every opportunity to bring forward measures to introduce the full provision of abortion services.
“Regretfully, they have failed to deliver for women and girls in Northern Ireland.
“That is why the Secretary of State has announced that the UK Government is stepping in to commission abortion services in Northern Ireland.
“Ministers will meet the Chief Executives of Health and Social Care Trusts in the coming weeks to ensure these services are provided.
“Ultimately, it remains the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive to fund abortion services in Northern Ireland.
“The UK Government will ensure that appropriate funding is available to enable healthcare professionals to take the necessary steps to ensure that essential training and recruitment of staff can progress, and services can be implemented.”
On Sunday, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Laura McLaughlin welcomed the move by Mr Heaton-Harris, but said she doubted if the services could be set up within six months.
She told the BBC: “This is a service that women have been waiting a long time for and that we as health professionals have been waiting for.”
The Catholic Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, said the move on abortion “undermined the principle of devolution”.
He added: “This urgency to push through abortion while the Northern Ireland Assembly is down, continues as Christmas approaches, while little is seemingly being done to ensure the urgent provision of Westminster support for the most vulnerable, including children, impacted by the cost of living crisis.
“Westminster seems determined to impose, against the clear will of a majority of people here, the undermining of the right to life of unborn children.”
Presbyterian Church in Ireland of Rev Trevor Gribben who has called a decision to commission abortion services in NI as "deplorable"