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Calls for remote abortion provision in Northern Ireland gather support

A petition calling on Northern Ireland’s Minister for Health, Robin Swann, to allow remote abortion provision in Northern Ireland during the COVID-19 pandemic has reached almost 2,000 signatures.

Set up by the Alliance for Choice, the petition calls on Swann to use his power of designation in accordance with the Legal Framework for Abortion NI to provide a telemedicine service to those requiring early medical abortions in Northern Ireland.

Specifically, it calls on Swann to introduce remote consultations on abortion and no criminalisation for medical personnel providing remote abortion care during this emergency, to allow patients to take both abortion medications in the safety of their own home, and to recognise that there is no safe way to access abortion care in England during this crisis.

Regulations were published last week for abortion provision in Northern Ireland. They allow for abortion on request up to 12 weeks with certification from one healthcare professional and home use permitted for the second pill (for medical abortion). Abortion is only accessible at 12-24 weeks under a ground specified in the consultation document and Ground C of the Abortion Act 1967. There is no time gestational limit where there is a severe or fatal anomaly.

Alliance for Choice welcomed the news but pointed out that it fell “significantly short, especially in a time of a global pandemic” and that the Health Minister had “a duty to sanction provision that does not jeopardise the health of women and pregnant people by forcing them to travel to clinics unnecessarily for abortions“.

Naomi O’Conner, Co-Covenor of Alliance for Choice, said at the time:

“We should not place women and pregnant people at risk of unsafe abortion when there is a scientific, safe and readily available alternative. At AFC we have heard directly that barriers and lack of access to abortion pills has led many to use dangerous alternatives. This is not a reality we wish to revisit when there is a body of scientific research that supports abortion telemedicine provision.”

Yesterday, the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care confirmed that it was temporarily relaxing rules for medical abortions up to the tenth week of pregnancy. Following a telephone or e-consultation with a doctor, the two pills required for an early termination will be sent out.

Claire Murphy of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) said of the news that:

“This is a very safe and simple measure that will dramatically improve women’s access to care at this time of national crisis. We’re really pleased that the government has acted on this. It will make a huge difference to women’s health and wellbeing in the current climate.”

Separately, Simon Harris, Minister for Health in the Republic of Ireland, has told the Dáil that he is revising abortion guidelines so that those seeking early abortion can consult with doctors remotely during the Covid-19 emergency.

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