Assembly amendment could halt abortions at Belfast clinic
Two Assembly members have tabled a Stormont amendment that potentially could prevent the Marie Stopes and any other private clinics from carrying out abortions in Northern Ireland.
SDLP justice spokesman Alban Maginness and DUP chairman of the Assembly justice committee Paul Givan have jointly put an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill which would mean only the UK National Health Service can carry out legal terminations in Northern Ireland.
In the North, abortion is permitted only if the mother’s life is in danger or where she faces serious physical and mental health risks. The 1967 British Abortion Act does not apply in Northern Ireland.
Under the NHS system there were 44 such abortions in 2008-2009, 36 in 2009-2010 and 43 in 2010-2011.
Separately yesterday the North’s Department of Health in the face of a legal challenge from the Family Planning Association said it will next week publish updated draft guidelines on abortion.
Mr Maginness and Mr Givan, acting with advice from, among others, the North’s Attorney General John Larkin QC, tabled the amendment which they said “would ensure that the only organisation with any legal defence for carrying out an abortion would be the NHS”.
Mr Maginness, a barrister, said abortion was a matter devolved to Stormont and he believed their amendment was “legally watertight” even though it could be tested in court.
If the amendment is carried and if there is no successful legal challenge to this move, it could have consequences for the operations of the Stopes clinic in Belfast. It opened in October as the first private clinic to provide legal abortion on the island of Ireland.
The amendment is due to be voted on next Tuesday. It would require a simple majority of members to be carried unless a petition of concern was lodged against it. A petition would require the support of 30 MLAs from the unionist or nationalist traditions. A majority of unionists would be likely to support the amendment which could mean the only party that could possibly block it would be Sinn Féin, which has 29 seats, one short of the number required to lodge a petition.
Sinn Féin South Down MLA Caitríona Ruane last night said her party opposed the amendment because seeking to prevent abortion outside the NHS was “clearly an attempt to restrict the right of a woman to obtain a termination in life-threatening circumstances”.
She did not say whether Sinn Féin would lodge a petition of concern on the amendment.
A spokeswoman for Marie Stopes said that “should any changes in the law occur, we would comply with them”.