Mixed response to abortion clinic
Pro-choice lobbyists have welcomed the planned opening of Northern Ireland’s first abortion clinic, while anti-abortion groups have described it as an "outrage".
The Marie Stopes centre in Belfast, headed by former Progressive Unionist MLA Dawn Purvis, will begin carrying out terminations from next Thursday.
Women over 16, including patients from the Republic, will be able to make appointments at the sexual and reproductive health centre on Great Victoria Street.
As well as medical abortion up to nine weeks’ gestation, it will offer contraceptive options, HIV testing, sexually transmitted infections treatment and ultrasound scanning.
Bernadette Smith, from the Precious Life group, said she was absolutely outraged. "An organisation which is making profits from the death of unborn children is not welcome in Northern Ireland. There will be an outcry from the people, from government and from the churches.”
Ms Smith claimed there is “no demand” for a private abortion clinic in Northern Ireland.
“The figures for women seeking an abortion have been coming down. The reduction in the number of women travelling to England has fallen by 36 per cent over the last 15 years since the foundation of Precious Life,” she said.
Leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party Jim Allister said abortion was only legal in Northern Ireland where there is a threat to the life of the mother, and it would be imperative for the police to monitor the Stopes facility for any infringement of the law “including aiding and abetting abortion”.
Pro-choice groups, Rally for Choice, Choice Ireland and UCD Pro-Choice Society last night welcomed the opening of the clinic.
In a joint statement, the groups said the clinic will give women in Ireland a clear route for accessing legal abortions for the first time.
"The opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast will provide women all across Ireland with much easier access to legal abortion, rather than trying to raise the funds to travel to England or further afield. It will be a welcome move for many women in the Republic. It will also provide other much needed services including contraception and STI screening," the statement said.
"We call for the Irish Government to take note of this new positive step and finally legislate for the right of a woman to obtain an abortion when her life is in danger. It is unacceptable that 20 years after women were granted the constitutional right to abortion (when their lives are in danger) that women in Ireland must take a case to the Irish or European courts in order to exercise their rights."
The groups described the move as a step in the right direction in the campaign for free, safe and legal abortion.
The Presbyterian Church's director of social service Lindsay Conway said the new clinic must work within the law.
“The Presbyterian Church would strongly oppose any attempt to undermine or liberalise the abortion legislation as it currently stands in Northern Ireland that termination of human life at any stage within the womb should not be considered except under the most extreme circumstances,” she said.
Marie Stopes International, a not-for-profit organisation, is one of the United Kingdom’s leading providers of sexual and reproductive healthcare services. Established more than 30 years ago, it works in 42 countries.
In providing early medical abortions, the centre will operate under the North's existing laws, which are ambiguous.
Women in the North can seek abortions through the National Health Service if their cases meet certain eligibility conditions, but in practice they have found it very difficult to obtain abortions in Northern Ireland.
In the new Belfast centre, two doctors will assess whether a woman is eligible for a termination following a consultation with her and a scan to confirm the existence of the pregnancy, the length of gestation and any possible complications.
The cost for an early medical abortion, which is a non-surgical procedure, will be £350, excluding the consultation fee.
Ms Purvis, the Belfast centre’s programme director, said: “We offer a safe place for women and men to find support, be provided with help and counselling, to feel that they are being listened to and not judged. It is a matter of choice, every step of the way.
“A woman may decide that she does not want to choose a termination. If she does, then offering early medical abortion cuts out the stress of having to travel outside Northern Ireland to access those services.”
Last year, 1,007 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England or Wales for an abortion, as did 4,149 women from the Republic.
The main legislative restriction on abortion in the North is the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861.
Since 1967, the Abortion Act has governed abortion in England, Scotland and Wales but Northern Ireland was excluded and the 1861 Act applies. The 1945 Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Act also applies to abortion in Northern Ireland.
It allows the abortion of a child “capable of being born alive” only where the mother’s life would be otherwise at risk.
Attempts to challenge the existing legal restrictions have met strong opposition from politicians and anti-abortion campaigners in the North.
Ms Purvis said that in offering abortions, the centre would be operating within the current legal framework when the life of the pregnant woman was at immediate risk or if there was a long-term, serious or permanent risk to her physical or mental wellbeing.
The United Left Alliance welcomed the opening of the clinic, but said the cost of the service would be prohibitive for many women and it should be made available free of charge through the NHS.
Additional reporting: PA