LONDON — After a week of mounting legal pressure, Northern Ireland’s Department of Health authorized abortion services in the region late on Thursday, putting into force legislation that overturns one of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws.
Last month, abortion rights were extended to Northern Ireland for pregnancies up to 12 weeks, but the introduction of services was delayed by the health minister, Robin Swann, who has been accused of using the coronavirus outbreak to stall the process because of his ideological objections.
Abortion is one of the most contentious issues in Northern Irish politics. The legislation legalizing abortion was passed by the British Parliament after the collapse of the region’s power-sharing government. The regional government was restored in January, and has been torn by the abortion issue ever since.
Before the laws went into effect on Thursday, women seeking free abortions in Northern Ireland had to travel to England. (Abortion services are available in the Republic of Ireland, but the cost of $500 is prohibitive for many women.)
Currently, because of the coronavirus lockdown, the only way to get to England is to take an eight-hour ferry ride from Belfast to Liverpool.
Once there, the women meet with a doctor and are required to take an abortion pill in the doctor’s presence. Many of them, unable to afford overnight accommodation, immediately return to the ferry, where they risk miscarrying during the trip home.
Outraged by the situation, women’s rights groups threatened the region’s health authorities with action in the courts. After receiving legal advice, the Department of Health said on Thursday that it would authorize medical professionals in hospitals and clinics to provide services.
“The confirmation we have received today means that Northern Ireland Health Trusts will now provide early medical abortion in Northern Ireland,” Emma Campbell, co-chairwoman of the Northern Irish reproductive rights group Alliance for Choice, said in a statement on Friday.
“This will prevent hundreds of women and pregnant people from having to travel needlessly to clinics in England placing themselves at risk,” she added. “We want to give thanks to dedicated people on the ground and honor those who never got the support of our health system.”
Abortion rights groups are now calling on health officials to authorize the provision of telemedicine abortions, recently introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom. That would allow Northern Irish women in the early stages of pregnancy to self-administer abortion medication at home after a remote consultation with a doctor.
The issue of telemedicine has been locked up in a debate between the two main parties of the power-sharing government: Sinn Fein, which supports telemedicine abortions, at least during the coronavirus outbreak; and the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party, which supports the old law, which barred abortion in all cases except to save the life of the mother.
Hazal Atay, a sexual and reproductive rights activist, defended the practice. “Telemedicine abortion has been proven to be safe and effective, legal restrictions in Northern Ireland prevent its application and deprive women and pregnant people of safe abortion access,” she said.
Updated April 11, 2020
When will this end?
This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.
How can I help?
Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities. More than 30,000 coronavirus-related GoFundMe fund-raisers have started in the past few weeks. (The sheer number of fund-raisers means more of them are likely to fail to meet their goal, though.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
How does coronavirus spread?
It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.
Is there a vaccine yet?
No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.
What makes this outbreak so different?
Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.
What if somebody in my family gets sick?
If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.
Should I stock up on groceries?
Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
Can I go to the park?
Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
Should I pull my money from the markets?
That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.
What should I do with my 401(k)?
Watching your balance go up and down can be scary. You may be wondering if you should decrease your contributions — don’t! If your employer matches any part of your contributions, make sure you’re at least saving as much as you can to get that “free money.”
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