This coming Thursday Marie Stopes International, the pioneering sexual and reproductive health NGO, will open its newest clinic in Belfast, the first of its kind on the island of Ireland. It will offer sexual and reproductive advice, short- and long-term contraception options, STI screenings and treatment. It will also offer medical abortions up to 9 weeks of gestation. This is a courageous move in such an obstinately nebulous legal landscape, and is sure to draw fierce protest.
Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK to which the 1967 Abortion Act, which makes abortion legal up to 24 weeks of gestation, does not apply. Abortion is legal where there is an immediate threat to the woman’s life (where the woman would become a mental and physical wreck were she to continue the pregnancy), but attempts to introduce guidelines to clarify the permitting circumstances have been rejected. In this way women in the North are in the same legal limbo as us. While the BBC reports that 250 legal abortions have been carried out there in the past six years, most Northern Irish women still must travel across the water to access the rights afforded to the English, Scottish and Welsh.
While the Marie Stopes clinic is an incredible step in the right direction, it is obviously only a beginning, and one we will have to fight hard to maintain. Already pro-life groups such as ‘Precious Life’ in the North are threatening legal action, and church and lobby groups have expressed suspicion that Marie Stopes intends to get on-demand abortion in ‘through the back door.’
On the one hand we need to make it clear that nothing illegal is happening here. The clinic will be operating well within the law as it stands. Its director, Dawn Purvis, emphasised that terminations will be offered under even more limited circumstances than the law seems to allow – medical abortions alone will be available, up to the 9th week of pregnancy, and after two separate assessments to determine legal eligibility. If those who oppose this type of abortion wish to protest their target should be the law, not the clinic.
On the other hand, we are campaigning for liberalisation of that law. Ruth Bowie of the campaign group Terminations for Medical Reasons points out that most fatal foetal abnormalities are only picked up between weeks 12-20 of pregnancy. This means that many women in traumatic situations will still have to travel for necessary terminations. While Bernadette Smith claims there’s “no demand” for private abortion in Northern Ireland, 1007 Northern Irish women travelled to England and Wales last year to obtain one. These women have good reason for the decisions they make, and surely should have those reasons respected as UK citizens.
Pro-lifers rhetorically ask why women would pay £450 for a service that is supposedly available free of charge on the NHS. The suggestion is that Marie Stopes must be planning to offer abortion under circumstances that other health-care providers would not. While those against the clinic conclude that these would be illegal abortions (or else there would be no demand) we might wonder whether Northern Irish women’s legal rights are really being adequately met through the NHS. If there is demand for a paid service that is theoretically available for free, we will have good reason to suspect that theory and practice do not correspond.
Because of the legal smoke and mirrors, and the dearth of information on terminations in this country, it’s hard to say for sure what difference this clinic will make to Irish women. We don’t actually know how many women who would qualify for this service are being denied it at present. Once the clinic is up and running we will have access to invaluable information in this regard. What we do know is that those who would qualify for a termination on health grounds must be in a terrible position, and they absolutely deserve the non-judgemental, compassionate support this clinic will provide.