Women and girls in Northern Ireland will receive access to abortion services in the Republic of Ireland as of next year, Irish Health Minister Simon Harris announced Thursday morning.
Harris told Irish broadcaster RTE that it is a “matter of great regret” that women and girls in Northern Ireland are not currently able to access critical abortion services in the Republic of Ireland.
He added that it was “appropriate and important” that these women should be able to access these services rather than being forced to travel to other parts of the UK.
Women in Northern Ireland have previously been unable to travel to the Republic of Ireland for abortions, because the Republic’s ban on the practice was only revoked in its landslide referendum in May, with legislation currently passing through parliament. Harris pledged to work toward passing the legislation ahead of parliament’s Christmas vacation, with the intention of implementing services as early as January.
His statements came ahead of his meeting with pro-choice activists in Northern Ireland Thursday afternoon, and were welcomed by abortion campaigners.
“We welcome the Minister’s commitment to ensure access to abortion services for women from Northern Ireland,” Grainne Teggart, Amnesty UK’s Northern Ireland campaigns manager, told CNN.
“However, it serves to underscore the absurd situation we find ourselves in, where women from Northern Ireland will soon be able to travel by train to have an abortion, but still won’t be able to access safe and legal abortions at home.
“We call on the Northern Ireland secretary and UK government to prioritize women’s health care, decriminalize abortion and ensure a framework for access is put in place.”
Abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland in all cases except those where a woman’s life or health are at serious risk.
UK Department of Health figures revealed that more than 900 women traveled from Northern Ireland to England for an abortion in 2017, a 25% rise on the year before and the highest figure since 2011.
Northern Ireland’s abortion laws have nevertheless come under increasing scrutiny since Ireland voted overwhelmingly to support a constitutional amendment in May to remove the ban on the practice.
The UK House of Commons also voted in favor of legalizing abortion in Northern Ireland in October after a number of Conservative politicians broke ranks and voted for a bill proposed by opposition Labour MP Diana Johnson.
The bill is unlikely to become law, however, because the governing Conservative Party’s parliamentary majority depends on the Democratic Unionist Party, which is fiercely opposed to abortion.
The proposal nevertheless drew support from leading ministers, including International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt.