Pro-choice campaigners call for change in law on abortion
Pro-choice campaigners have called for the Irish Government to change the law on abortion after the Marie Stopes charity announced it is opening a private clinic in Belfast.
Rally For Choice, Choice Ireland and UCD Pro Choice Society say the new centre will make it easier for women across Ireland to access safe, legal abortions and hope it will reopen debate on the controversial issue.
"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," a statement from the three lobby groups said.
"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.
"We realise that this is only a small step in the campaign for free, safe and legal abortion, but it is a welcome step in the right direction."
The new medical facility at Great Victoria Street in Belfast city centre will be headed by former Progressive Unionist Party MLA Dawn Purvis.
It will offer abortions, each costing £450, when it opens next Thursday.
Anti-abortionists including Stormont politicians and church leaders have reacted with fury and claim there is no demand for a private clinic.
Unlike other parts of the UK the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply in Northern Ireland. NHS terminations can only be carried out to preserve the life of the mother or if continuing with the pregnancy would seriously adversely impact on her physical or mental health.
In August Stormont Health Minister Edwin Poots confirmed 416 medical abortions and 262 terminations of pregnancy had taken place in Northern Ireland between 2006/07 and 2011/12.
In May statistics published by the UK department of health revealed that overall the number of women travelling to England and Wales for abortions had dropped for the 10th year in a row, from 4,402 in 2010 to 4,149 last year, a 7% decrease.
The figures include almost 150 Irish minors, while more than half were women in their 20s; 1,289 were in their 30s; and 257 were aged over 40.
In the republic, a 14-member expert group on abortion is due to report back to Health Minister James Reilly on the implications of a 2010 European Court of Human Rights ruling on Irish abortion laws.
It found the state had failed to implement existing rights to lawful abortion where a mother's life is at risk, and that the state violated the rights of a woman with cancer who said she was forced to travel abroad to obtain an abortion.
The Government has also been called on to legislate for abortion in special circumstances as dictated by the 20-year-old 'X case' Supreme Court ruling and allow abortion if the life of the mother or unborn child is under threat. But successive governments have failed to act.
Cardinal Sean Brady had previously said the Catholic Church believed a referendum on abortion was possibly the only solution on dealing with the controversy.
The Catholic Primate said he wants people to listen to each other and accept the arguments being made in debates. But he warned the church will oppose any attempt to legislate abortion through a media campaign and by lobbying public representatives and providing resources to priests to preach on the topic.
Last week pro-life literature was handed out to mass-goers across Ireland.
In Northern Ireland the law permits abortions in very limited circumstances and these are already provided by the NHS.
Peter Lynas, Northern Ireland director of Evangelical Alliance, called for further investment in crisis pregnancy counselling.
He said: "We need to deal with the root causes of this issue - relationship breakdown, vulnerable young people, underage sex etc, rather than a private firm performing abortions, which are not the answer.
"If Marie Stopes is operating within the current law, their services are unnecessary as the NHS already provide these. This raises further concerns as to why an outside private provider is setting up in Northern Ireland. It would also be deeply worrying if Marie Stopes were offering advice and actual terminations - these aspects must be kept separate."
Dr Paula Franklin, medical director with Marie Stopes International, said the Belfast centre would operate within the current laws with early abortions which involve taking tablets only being carried out on women assessed by two different doctors.
Aftercare such as counselling and access to a 24-hour helpline will also be provided.
Stormont Health Minister Edwin Poots tonight warned that Marie Stopes must operate within the law.
He said: "I note that Marie Stopes International state very clearly that they will work within the law.
"An operation in Northern Ireland for the termination of a pregnancy may not result in criminal liability when it is necessary to preserve the life of the woman or there is a risk of real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health, which is either long term or permanent. This condition applies no less strongly before nine weeks than longer into the pregnancy.
"Abortion in Northern Ireland is regulated by the criminal law, and punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. It will be for the police to investigate any concerns that arise and the courts to determine whether an offence has been carried out."