BELFAST (Reuters) - Women's rights groups are to ask the British Supreme Court on Wednesday to compel the government to fund abortions for Northern Ireland residents traveling to England to avoid some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.
While the National Health Service routinely provides free abortions to women in most of the United Kingdom, abortion is only permitted in the British province of Northern Ireland when a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.
Last year just 16 abortions were carried out in Northern Ireland but women's rights groups estimate that around 1,000 women travel to Britain each year for terminations, which they must finance themselves along with travel and other costs.
The Republic of Ireland has similarly restrictive laws, although the government there has said it will consider changes in the next two years.
In 2014, the High Court in London ruled that the British Health Secretary had a duty in relation to the physical and mental health of the people of England, but not those ordinarily resident in Northern Ireland.
A coalition of reproductive rights organizations is arguing that not allowing NHS-funded abortions represents unlawful discrimination contrary to Article 14 and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
“It is simply unjust that women from Northern Ireland are forced to pay for healthcare that is provided free of charge to women resident in all other parts of the UK," said British Pregnancy Advisory Service chief executive Ann Furedi.
Pro-choice activists in Northern Ireland are demanding as a minimum a relaxation of laws so girls and women can access a termination in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and pregnancy through sexual crime.
Political parties in Northern Ireland are divided on abortion. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of First Minister Arlene Foster is among the most socially conservative in Europe and has consistently opposed widespread access to abortion.
Northern Ireland's health and justice ministers have received a report exploring the issue of fatal foetal abnormality and it will be considered by Northern Ireland's devolved government in due court, Foster told Reuters last week.
(Writing by Amanda Ferguson; Editing by Conor Humphries)