A change in the law which allows Northern Irish women to access abortions on the NHS does not go far enough, experts say.
Marie Stopes, one of the UK’s leading providers of terminations, said women deserve to be allowed to access services close to home - and that many are not receiving adequate information about their options from their GPs.
Northern Irish residents seeking an abortion currently have to come to the UK mainland, at an average cost of around £350 - and are often left with no option but to travel long distances home in severe discomfort.
The government announced last month that those women would no longer have to fund their own treatment after Labour MP Stella Creasy tabled and amendment to the Queen’s speech, which won cross-party support.
Vix Proctor, head of communications at Marie Stopes, told HuffPost UK that while the move was “a welcome step in the right direction”, it did not go far enough in giving women who contribute directly towards the NHS the level of service they should be entitled to.
“Because there are much more stringent conditions on accessing abortion in Northern Ireland, and because the laws place much more onus and responsibility on GPs, many are not giving women enough information about the fact they can access services in England,” she said.
“This is really unfortunate, because abortion services are one of the few NHS services than be be accessed through self-referral - you don’t have to be given an appointment through your GP.
“That means most women who access information about our services do so through Googling, so we have set up a dedicated website for women from Ireland and Northern Ireland who are searching for advice, which is specifically tailored for those who will have to travel.
“While the government’s decision to fund terminations for Northern Irish women is welcome, they still deserve more. They deserve to be offered treatment in their home country and should not have to suffer an emotionally difficult time being made more difficult.”
More than 800 women travelled to the mainland from Northern Ireland to access Marie Stopes services in 2015.
Those who opt for medical termination are ordinarily advised to get home, or somewhere comfortable, as quickly as possible, as the treatment given can cause strong cramps and discomfort.
“Many women opt to book a hotel room for the weekend to give them more recovery time, but for lots of people - those on low incomes, or those who have issues with childcare - that isn’t always an option,” Ms Proctor added.
″Even without having to pay the cost of the procedure, travel costs, taxis and possible hotel bills still add up to hundreds of pounds.
“We would like to see the government do more to make a proper level of service available for everyone.”
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the other main termination provider in the UK, has joined forces with Marie Stopes to lobby for better provision for those in Northern Ireland.
Blogging for HuffPost UK, Katherine O’Brien, head of policy research at BPAS, said: “Northern Irish women are UK citizens, and we are leaving them in the most desperate of situations - selling their children’s Christmas toys, resorting to payday lenders, to finance a medical procedure that is fully-funded for residents in every other part of the UK, due to politics. This isn’t good enough.”