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Why Abortion Is the UK's Most Controversial Postcode Lottery

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This week, like every other, about 20 women from Northern Ireland will travel to the mainland for an abortion. Unlike women in the rest of the UK, they are not entitled to have their procedure funded by the NHS so they'll have to pay for treatment themselves.

They come because the law governing abortion in Northern Ireland is incredibly restrictive. Women, and anyone helping them to abort a pregnancy, face life in prison unless a woman's life is in danger or the pregnancy poses a 'real and serious, permanent or long-term' risk to her health.

As a result, just 51 women had an abortion in Northern Ireland in 2013, and a thousand more packed a case and headed for England.

These are women in an already difficult situation made manifestly worse by the added stress involved in finding the money to travel and pay for their abortions. Along with the cost of treatment, they'll have to pay for a plane ticket and some will need a hotel room too.

Most will travel alone to try and keep costs down and many of these women will have been pushed into having later, more expensive abortions, because they had to save up the money first.

It's a walloping inequality, reinforced today by the High Court in London which ruled that women from Northern Ireland must remain unentitled to free abortions on the NHS in England out of consideration to devolutionary powers.

And because the UK's Abortion Act doesn't cover Northern Ireland, the judge has also ruled that this is not a discrimination issue.

These women are UK taxpayers being denied health services that are freely available to the rest of us. Call that what you will, but it doesn't look remotely equitable or defensible to me.

The case was brought by two women one of whom was 15 years old when she travelled with her mother to have an abortion at a Marie Stopes clinic in Manchester.

In a witness statement, her mother said "the whole experience and stress of not knowing whether it was going to be possible to have the procedure and raise the funds was harrowing and had a serious impact on (her daughter) and myself."

She went on to add that "if my daughter had had some other health condition which necessitated her travelling to another part of the UK for treatment, I believe that no obstacles would have been put in her way and that every effort would have been made to ensure that she was treated in an appropriate NHS facility and had assistance with travel costs."

Indeed. We know that the law in Northern Ireland is unlikely to change soon, so our hopes were pinned on a ruling from England which would have gone some way towards addressing this inequality.

It didn't come.

And what of those women for whom the costs of travelling to England for an abortion are too great?

If they don't meet the legal requirement in Northern Ireland, the choice they face is bleak indeed: choose illegal abortion with the attendant risk to life and liberty, or go through with the pregnancy and bear the emotional, physical and social consequences.

Whichever way you look at it, women in Northern Ireland are paying a heavy price in the UK's most controversial postcode lottery.

Around the Web

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NI women not entitled to free NHS abortions in England says High Court

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Court rules Northern Ireland women not entitled to free abortions in England