Opening of first abortion clinic in Northern Ireland sparks threats of complaints to police and a warning from health minister Edwin Poots
Opponents of abortion have reacted with outrage following the revelation that Northern Ireland’s first abortion clinic will open its doors here next week.
Pro-life campaigners are predicting widespread opposition to the centre which will be run by international charity Marie Stopes.
The organisation will not disclose the clinic’s exact location, citing security concerns for staff and patients.
Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Edwin Poots, who learned of the move through the Belfast Telegraph, has already questioned the legal position of the centre.
The clinic, which will open in Belfast city centre next Thursday, will provide medical abortions up to nine weeks into a woman’s pregnancy.
Former Progressive Unionist MLA Dawn Purvis, programme director at Marie Stopes Northern Ireland, has said the controversial centre will provide early medical abortions currently available here on the NHS.
She added that the procedures will fall within the current legal framework — which states that the life of the pregnant woman must be at immediate risk and/or if there is a long term or permanent risk to a mother’s physical or mental health.
Ms Purvis added: “We are working in partnership with many organisations and experts in the province to make sure that our centre meets the needs of the people of Northern Ireland while working within all relevant laws and guidelines.
“The RQIA has been informed of the plans for our centre.”
The Family Planning Association — which is backing the new centre as a leap forward in choice for women — has said that early medical abortions are rare in Northern Ireland.
Marie Stopes has stressed that the new centre will not be a ‘walk-in service’ — instead operating on an appointments-only basis.
Tracey McNeill, vice-president and director of Marie Stopes UK and Europe, said women seeking an early medical abortion up to nine weeks in their pregnancy will undergo consultations with two independent doctors who will be on-site in the centre.
The patients’ GP will be contacted if they have further questions about the woman’s case history, and a psychiatrist will be on hand for further advice.
It is understood that terminations will cost £450 each, a charge Marie Stopes says will cover the centre’s overheads.
The centre will also offer contraception options, HIV testing and STI testing and treatment for men and women.
However, in an indication of the strength of opposition to the centre before it has even opened its doors, Edwin Poots last night warned Marie Stopes to “observe the law in Northern Ireland”.
The minister said he would be leaving the matter in the hands of the Attorney General.
“It is a legal matter, not a health matter,” he told this newspaper.
“It will come to the attention of the Attorney General, and it will be for the Attorney General to take whatever actions he deems necessary.”
He added: “If they break the law, they will be prosecuted.
“The law is very clear that abortion can only take place when the life of the mother is at risk.”
Bernadette Smyth, from the Precious Life Group, meanwhile, indicated her intention to report Marie Stopes to the PSNI.
She said: “I will be putting a complaint in first thing tomorrow morning to the PSNI, on the ground that Marie Stopes is carrying out an illegal offence.”
She has accused Marie Stopes of pulling a “desperate publicity stunt”, in an attempt to “force” through a change in the law governing abortion in Northern Ireland.
This has been dismissed by the charity.
Tracey McNeill said: “We will be performing terminations of a pregnancy that meet the legal criteria.
“We understand the legal requirements and what we are doing. We know thousands of women living in Northern Ireland come to Europe to access family planning and sexual health service and we believe they should have access to these facilities in their own country.”
Why is it opening? What services will it offer? And will it be legal?
Q When is the new clinic opening?
A Marie Stopes Northern Ireland is opening what it describes as Belfast’s first integrated sexual and reproductive health centre at an undisclosed city centre location on October 18. It will initially be open on Thursdays from 1-10pm and Saturdays from 8am-6pm. If demand grows, it may increase its opening hours.
Q Isn’t abortion in Northern Ireland illegal?
A The 1967 Abortion Act, legalising abortions in England and Wales, was never extended to Northern Ireland, which had its own Parliament at the time. The law here is still governed by sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, and sections 25 and 26 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945. An offence under section 58 is punishable with life imprisonment.
Q So abortion is always illegal in Northern Ireland?
A No, but it is highly limited. Terminations of pregnancy are only legal here if a woman’s life is deemed at immediate risk or there may be a long-term or permanent risk to her physical or mental health. All other cases, including when the woman has been the victim of rape, are banned. Marie Stopes said it will offer its early medical abortion service in the same way that is currently available from the NHS here — only within the current legal framework.
Q Have there been many abortions in Northern Ireland?
A Recent figures from the Department of Health list 123 terminations of pregnancy carried out in hospitals in Northern Ireland between 2008 and 2011 — 44 abortions in 2008/09, 36 in 2009/10 and 43 in 2010/11.
Q But have many women from Northern Ireland had abortions in Great Britain?
A L ast year, 1,007 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England or Wales for an abortion.
Q How can a clinic offering abortion just go ahead and open in Northern Ireland without warning?
A The Marie Stopes organisation said: “We have been consulting with key stakeholders over the past two years to understand what is needed and wanted in Northern Ireland. An advisory group of experts from Northern Ireland — specialists in healthcare, social policy, politics and the law — have guided our preparations, and consultations with organisations like the Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland, Royal College of Midwives and Northern Ireland, have helped us ensure that our centre meets the highest standards of care possible.”
Q What services will the clinic offer?
A The operators of the clinic say it will provide the following services for clients: termination of pregnancy up to nine weeks gestation; family planning and contraception — offering both short-term methods such as the Pill, injections and condoms, and long-acting options such as implants and intrauterine devices. It will also offer testing and treatment for sexually-transmitted infections; HIV counselling, testing and referral; and a 24- hour information, advice and support service.
Q How much does an abortion at the clinic cost?
A The cost for a medical abortion (using a pill) up to nine weeks will be around £450 at the Belfast centre. This fee will cover the costs of consultation, a scan to confirm pregnancy and the length of the term, and counselling and assessment to see if the woman is eligible. For surgical abortion carried out in Great Britain, Marie Stopes charges between £546 and £1,846, depending on the length of term. It offers a discount to women from Ireland, north and south.
Should there be a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast? Two views on a controversial development
YES Says Audrey Simpson, director of the NI Family Planning Association
This centre will mean that women can have an early medical abortion in Northern Ireland within the legal requirements. And that means they do not have to travel away from home and that they do not need the cash to cover the travel costs.
I suspect that there are no early medical abortions or very few carried out here in the first eight weeks of pregnancy.
At the minute, women in Northern Ireland do not have that facility here. If a woman needs a termination, it is usually carried out at a later stage of the pregnancy and it is usually a surgical procedure.
We also do not have any guidelines for provision of termination of a pregnancy in Northern Ireland.
We have been fighting for that for 15 years — and we are currently fighting for that.
This is important because it will be a sexual and reproductive health clinic.
It is not just going to be doing early medical abortions. It is also going to be doing STI diagnostic and medical testing.
If you live in Derry, you could be waiting six weeks at least to get an appointment to a family planning clinic.
This is an option, for women who can afford it, to come to Marie Stopes and get an appointment there. It may well be that many people will come to Marie Stopes to get STI testing or treatment.
This is widening choice for people in Northern Ireland.
Abortion is legal in Northern Ireland if the woman’s physical or mental health is at grave or serious risk – and that risk is long-term and probable, rather than possible.
Around 60 or 70 abortions are carried out in Northern Ireland every year.
NO Says Bernie Smyth, director of the anti-abortion group Precious Life
We will do everything we can to stop this.
This is an illegal abortion clinic they are trying to set up here. These are illegal abortions. Abortion is illegal here.
I will be putting a complaint in first thing tomorrow morning to the PSNI, on the grounds that Marie Stopes is carrying out an illegal offence.
I will also be contacting the Public Prosecution Service.
Abortion is not legal in Northern Ireland.
The only thing that is legal here is the provision of medical treatment for women.
The laws in Northern Ireland which protect our unborn children are the Offences Against The Person Act 1861 and Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945.
These statutes make it an offence to abort a child in the period from conception to birth. The crime is punishable by the maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Marie Stopes does not represent the legislation here or the Government here. Marie Stopes is an abortion provider.
The Government figures show that in some cases we have had abortions here and in some cases they have been performed for disabilities (related reasons).
It’s an offence to abort a child.
I think it’s a desperate step. It shows that the pro-abortion movement here are desperate to force abortion in Northern Ireland because there’s never been backing from politicians — and they know they are fighting a losing battle by flouting the law.
They are using this as a publicity stunt to try and raise the profile of a money-making industry.
They have no support from the Government and the people here.
I think they will be stopped immediately.
It’s not about choice. Abortion in Northern Ireland is a criminal offence. It’s about a criminal issue.