NI state papers: Abortion law tested in 1992

By Éamon Phoenix

Image source, istock
Image caption,
The 1967 Abortion Act, which established legal abortion, has never applied in Northern Ireland

The latest state papers released by the Public Records Office show Northern Ireland's strict abortion law was tested in 1992.

The issue emerged in April of that year, when a Northern Ireland woman had an abortion at a Scottish hospital.

Her local health board refused to refund the cost of the procedure.

As a result, the Scottish health management executive raised the issue with the Department of Health and Social Services at Stormont.

In a note on the file, dated 30 March 1992, Stormont official DJ Thompson explained that with the introduction of contracting for health and social services, Northern Ireland's health boards needed to reimburse hospitals in Great Britain that had provided treatment for Northern Ireland residents.


This particular case, he informed colleagues, concerned a local woman who had an abortion in Scotland.

Later, when the Eastern Health Board was asked to refund the cost, it refused on two grounds.

Firstly, that prior authorisation had not been obtained, and secondly, that the "operation was illegal".

In Mr Thompson's view, the allegation of illegality needed to be clarified as it had implications for Northern Ireland, given its "more restrictive legal position on abortion".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Abortion is a very emotive and divisive issue in Northern Ireland

The official acknowledged that many Northern Ireland women travelled to Great Britain for abortions.

'Equality of access'

His concern was that, in the light of the board's stance and the existence of separate legislation in Northern Ireland, local women might be prevented in future from obtaining abortions in Britain on the NHS.

"This will raise the question of equality of access for services within the UK and the role of boards here in making judgements about a rather emotive issue," he added,

Mr Thompson noted that the local exemption from the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act commanded broad support from Northern Ireland politicians and the churches.

Therapeutic terminations could only be carried out in Northern Ireland with the consent of two doctors and the informed consent of the woman.

However, he noted that 1,855 abortions were carried out in Great Britain for Northern Ireland women in 1991.

The issue became live again in June 1992 when the pro-abortion Conservative MP, Teresa Gorman, wrote to a direct rule minister seeking his views on the reform of the law in Northern Ireland in light of a recent opinion poll.

The minister, the Earl of Arran replied, restating the government's position in Northern Ireland but assuring her that the position would be kept under review.

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.