Women traveling from Northern Ireland to England to have an abortion will have their procedures paid for, according to new plans the British government announced Thursday.
The move came hours before lawmakers were due to vote on the issue as an amendment to the Queen’s Speech — which sets out the government’s legislative program.
The amendment had sought to ensure that women in Northern Ireland seeking abortions in other parts of the UK would have them paid for by the National Health Service.
Currently, women in Northern Ireland who want an abortion must travel to England, Wales or Scotland for treatment and pay for the procedure despite paying UK taxes, which contribute to the NHS.
Abortion is illegal in almost all cases in Northern Ireland unless there is a direct threat to the mother’s life.
Labour lawmaker Stella Creasy, who proposed the amendment, had gathered widespread support in the House of Commons, with members of different parties, including Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives, signing up to it.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Creasy said she was withdrawing her amendment after receiving assurances from the government. Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond made the announcement on abortion funding.
In a letter to colleagues, Justine Greening, the minister for women and equalities, outlined plans for funding to be made available as a direct response of the amendment.
Creasy’s proposal had asked the government to ensure “the provision of adequate funding and guidance so that all UK citizens including those from Northern Ireland may access medical services including abortion procedures in England if they so wish without charge.”
A vote on the amendment would have been the first serious test of May’s deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which fiercely opposes abortion.
Two other amendments to the Queen’s Speech were both defeated Thursday. On Wednesday, the government narrowly defeated an amendment to scrap a pay cap for public sector workers by 14 votes.
May is heavily dependent on the DUP, which agreed to prop up her minority government after a deal reached this week.
Under the agreement, the DUP’s 10 lawmakers will support May’s minority government over the Queen’s Speech as well as bills relating to national security and Brexit.
In return, the UK government has pledged an extra £1 billion ($1.2bn) investment over the next two years in addition to the £500 million ($600 million) it had already committed.
Critics of the deal have wondered whether it would leave the women of Northern Ireland without the chance of overturning existing legislation surrounding abortion given May’s tenuous hold on power.
Just last month, the UK Supreme Court rejected an appeal by a mother and daughter over the rights of women in Northern Ireland to receive free abortions on the NHS in England.
Court ruling in Northern Ireland
The move comes on the same day as a ruling from Northern Ireland’s highest court that changes to abortion laws should be made by Northern Ireland’s Stormont Assembly rather than the courts.
Belfast’s Court of Appeal was asked to decide whether to uphold two high court rulings made in 2015 and 2016 that the existing laws breached a woman’s right to privacy under European law.
The case is now expected to move to the UK Supreme Court.