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A decades-long struggle to allow Northern Irish women access to abortions which will be funded by the NHS won on Thursday 29th June. The UK government vowed to reverse its original policy, which refused to pay for these terminations, during the amendments raised during the Queen’s Speech debates. Many Conservative MPs expressed to Tory whips their clear cut support for such an amendment made by the Labour MP of Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, to grant Northern Irish women secure access to NHS-funded legal abortions in mainland Britain. Currently in Northern Ireland, abortion is only permitted if the women’s life is at risk, or if there is a serious risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health. This law does not permit legal abortions being carried out in Northern Ireland in cases of rape, incest and where a pregnancy is doomed to fail due to fatal foetal abnormality. However, Northern Irish women are legally allowed to travel to Britain for terminations – although they are forced to pay for their own travel and accommodation and previously, a private abortion. Pro-choice groups estimate that some 1,000 Northern Irish women travel to mainland Britain every year for private abortions, usually costing £900.

The Department of Health has previously defended the Conservative policy not to fund abortions for those women travelling from Northern Ireland to mainland Britain, arguing that such a policy would undermine the devolved power; the Northern Irish Assembly. However, despite these attempts restricting already strict abortion laws, Creasy’s amendment to the Queens speech was selected by the Speaker for vote. After gaining solid and promising backing from MPs across nearly all parties, the vote was dropped in fear of a damaging result for the UK government that would result in a dangerous Tory rebellion. This concession, has resulted in Justine Greening, the Minister for Women and Equalities, stating that the Equalities Office would fund the payments for the terminations with additional fundings for the English health services.

Two weeks prior to the announcement of the granted funding for abortions for those women travelling from Northern Ireland, the Supreme Court narrowly dismissed a case brought to them by a mother and daughter, who for legal reasons are known as ‘A and B’. ‘A’ was aged 15 and a resident in Northern Ireland, when she became pregnant in 2012. Unable to access abortion services in Northern Ireland, she travelled to Manchester with her mother, and used the services of a private clinic, at a total cost of £900, including travel. The Supreme Court dismissed the case on the grounds that such discrimination was justified. In the Supreme Court, the Government argued strongly that in not funding abortions for Northern Irish women on the NHS in England as it was respecting the decisions of the devolved government in Northern Ireland to have stricter laws on abortion. A majority of the Supreme Court agreed, but two weeks later the Government has effectively discarded that justification, and undermines the devolved government’s power that the UK government so strongly stood behind.

This political and legislative confusion leads us to ask the contradictory question; just which institution gets to decide for the women of Northern Ireland what happens to her body? Because, unless she can afford to travel to mainland Britain, it will most definitely not be her. We are now left with a terrifying question; can money buy human rights?

The policy reverse although a giant step for not just the women of Northern Ireland, but women globally, still creates a severe divide between those who can afford to fulfil their rights, and those who can’t. Campaigners in Northern Ireland have, of course, welcomed the UK government’s decision, but have clearly warned them that poorer women will still be hugely disadvantaged due to the costs of travelling to the British mainland. There will always be women who cannot afford to travel. Mara Clarke, the director of the Abortion Support Network, which offers financial assistance to women in need of abortions said: “No one should have to travel. We rejoice today – but the work will still be here tomorrow.” We are now faced with a crossroads. Not only should no one have to travel, but if one does, should the UK government fund that also?

The small step taken by the UK government only highlights just how far away the finish line is. Can women truly win if the game is rigged? With progress comes scrutiny. This win for women gives insight into just how slow the pace is for improvement of women’s rights.

Molly Griffiths is a member of Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.