The Health Minister has been criticised for drawing the PSNI into a row over who regulates an independent abortion clinic opening in Belfast this week.
Just days before it opens, Edwin Poots said he is still trying to ascertain how the Marie Stopes clinic will be regulated.
He revealed he has gone to the PSNI in a bid to control activity at the Great Victoria Street clinic which is due to open on Thursday.
Dr Audrey Simpson, director of the pro-choice Family Planning Association (FPA) in Northern Ireland, said: “Why on earth is Edwin Poots asking the police to regulate a health facility? What do they know about the health service? What are they going to do, walk into the clinic to make sure it is being run properly?”
Dr Simpson was reacting after Mr Poots told the Assembly he has instructed Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, to contact the Chief Constable and permanent secretary of the Department of Justice (DoJ) as the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic approaches.
The DUP man was speaking during an emergency debate held in the Assembly to discuss what action, if any, he can take on the opening of the private clinic which will offer abortions within Northern Ireland’s current strict laws.
The facility — the first to offer a private abortion service in Northern Ireland — has raised concerns that it will push current abortion laws beyond boundaries. The Marie Stopes charity stresses it will operate within the law.
With decisions on abortion law and guidance mainly in the hands of men in Northern Ireland, the Belfast Telegraph has opened out the debate to women here, gathering the opinion of 50 voices.
Speaking at Stormont on Monday, Mr Poots said abortion “is a criminal law matter which is covered by criminal justice”.
He continued: “The 1967 Abortion Act does not apply to Northern Ireland so abortion here is regulated by criminal law, clarified by case law. We will provide after care for women who have had abortions where they have been in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.
“I have instructed my chief medical officer to be in contact with the Chief Constable and permanent secretary of the Department of Justice to indicate to them where we believe the law lies in this matter and seek from them what actions they intend to take in this matter.”
The minister answered questions from the health spokespeople from each political party — including Jim Wells from his own party, Jim Allister from TUV, Kieran McCarthy from the Alliance Party, Roy Beggs from the UUP, Conall McDevitt of the SDLP and Sinn Fein’s Sue Ramsey. Of the seven, only one was a woman.
Criticising Mr Poots, Dr Simpson said: “What about the women who are pregnant and who don’t want to continue with their pregnancy? In the current situation, they are not stopping women from having abortions, they are just exporting the problem, putting women in financial hardship.
“There are also cases where women resort to the internet to carry out an abortion and they are putting their safety at risk.”
Kieran McCarthy, a member of the Stormont health committee, also hit out at the Minister.
He claimed: “He hasn’t been able to give any answers. We need to know when he was made aware of the opening of this clinic and why he didn’t act any sooner to address the fact it is completely unregulated.”
Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply to Northern Ireland. NHS terminations can only be carried out to preserve the life of the mother or if continuing the pregnancy would seriously adversely impact on her physical or mental health. There is thorough assessment of any impact on mental well-being and the woman must consult two clinicians. All other cases, including rape, are banned. The Marie Stopes Clinic has said it will carry out medical, not surgical, procedures only up to nine weeks' gestation and only within the existing legal framework.
And he's facing fresh pressure over delay in guidelines
Health Minister Edwin Poots has come under fire once again for long-delayed guidelines on when abortions can be carried out on the NHS.
The DUP man has been under pressure to sign-off guidance which would fill the void in Northern Ireland because the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply here as it does in the rest of the UK.
Doctors and midwives have raised concerns that they are operating in legal limbo because current guidance is so unclear. These laws will also apply to the Marie Stopes clinic when it opens in Belfast on Thursday.
Abortion is only allowed to be carried out in Northern Ireland in very limited circumstances — based on an assessment of any impact on mental well-being by two clinicians.
Meanwhile, a legal source has told the Belfast Telegraph there is an opt-out in Northern Ireland for staff who have a conscientious objection to abortion — highlighting the extent of uncertainty around the issue.
Pressure for the Department of Health to issue guidance dates back to 2004 when it was ordered to issue appropriate advice.
However, eight years on, health professionals are still waiting for it to be issued.
Initial guidance was issued for consultation in 2007. A redraft was ordered in 2007. The department asked to make changes in 2009 as the result of a judicial review. The guidance was withdrawn and interim guidance issued in February 2010. This was then withdrawn by the health minister in July 2010.
Director of the Northern Ireland Family Planning Association (FPA) Dr Audrey Simpson criticised the minister over the long-delayed document.
“The minister has failed to act on this issue. He has had guidelines on abortion on his desk for 18 months. He told the Assembly he wants to make them bombproof, so they can’t be challenged by judicial review, but he is facing a judicial review over his failure to issue these guidelines,” she added.
Regulation of the Marie Stopes clinic is also a confused picture after the Regulation and Improvement Quality Authority said last week that it has no power over it.
A spokesman from the RQIA, which is a watchdog for hospitals and clinics, said: “The nature of services proposed by Marie Stopes International are currently not subject to regulation under The Health and Personal Social Services (Quality, Improvement and Regulation) (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.”
However, on Monday Mr Poots said his officials are working to establish whether the clinic is covered by the Health and Personal Social Services (Quality Improvement and Regulation (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.
Meanwhile, Bernadette Smyth from Precious Life said she is continuing efforts to stop any abortions from being carried out in Northern Ireland and is seeking a meeting with Mr Poots to discuss her concerns.
Ms Smyth said she does not know how many people are expected to attend a protest outside the Marie Stopes clinic on Thursday but said she is confident there will be a good turnout.
“We are still working with the politicians and awaiting legal advice as to whether we can refer this matter to the police,” she said.
“At the end of the day, no crime has been committed yet but we are concerned that the police should be involved, particularly as Edwin Poots has said it is a police matter.”