The Government has been forced to cover the cost of abortions for women travelling to England from Northern Ireland to avoid an embarrassing defeat in Parliament.
Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech calling for all Northern Irish women to be able to “access all medical services including abortion… without charge”.
Ms Creasy claimed at least 40 Conservative MPs were prepared to support the measure, overpowering the slim majority held by the Government after agreeing a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party.
It is the DUP that has blocked legal abortions from being performed in Northern Ireland, as matters of health are devolved to Stormont.
When the scale of the support became clear, Minister For Women and Equalities Justine Greening wrote a letter to MPs explaining the new position.
“At present women from Northern Ireland are asked for payment, and from now on it is our proposal that this will no longer happen,” she said.
“This is clearly a sensitive issue and one which has direct implications for equality in treatment of women from Northern Ireland.
“Following discussions with the Department of Health, we will ensure these payments will be funded through the Government Equalities Office with additional funding. This will mean no English health service user is disadvantaged as a result of this change.”
The climbdown shows how vulnerable the Government is to cross-party amendments with broad-based support, even on such important moments in the parliamentary calendar as the Queen’s Speech.
Abortion is banned in Northern Ireland unless a woman’s life is at risk or her mental or physical health face permanent and serious risk.
Charities have welcomed the Government’s move, with some hailing it as a “landmark moment”.
“We are absolutely delighted that the Government has committed to funding abortion care for women who travel from Northern Ireland to England,” said a spokeswoman for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
“This is a landmark moment: for years the women of Northern Ireland, despite being UK citizens and taxpayers, have not been entitled to NHS-funded treatment.”