by Caelainn Hogan: On The Issues Special Correspondent
Belfast, Northern Ireland – On October 18, 2012, the first clinic to offer legal medical abortions, albeit within the tight legal restrictions, finally opened in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Marie Stopes International, Belfast’s new private clinic, is located on Great Victoria Street, just across from Belfast’s main bus station, and a two and a half hour ride from Dublin. It is part of a network of reproductive health clinics that reports serving more than 100,000 men and women throughout Great Britain and also runs more than 600 centers in forty countries.
Like other Stopes clinics, the one in Belfast offers a full range of sexual and reproductive health services — including medical abortions up to nine weeks. It is headed by Dawn Purvis, former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party and operating under the pressure of an investigation by the Northern Irish government.
The clinic treats women patients in a non-judgmental manner, said Michael Tyrell, spokesperson for Marie Stopes International. Activists say this is not always the case in Ireland. Tyrell said that the clinic will only provide abortions within the current legal restrictions — ie, in situations where the mother’s life is in danger.
But even within those narrow limits, abortion is very difficult to obtain in Northern Ireland and the bordering independent Irish Republic. According to the best available count, only between 30 and 40 abortions are performed each year in Northern Ireland. The death of Savita Halappanavar in the Irish Republic occurred just 10 days after Marie Stopes opened.
“Under the law, a woman in danger should be able to walk into any doctor’s office and have them refer you to the local hospital,” says Michael Tyrell. “If there is genuine risk – that pathway should be open. In reality, it’s just not happening. Instead, people are taking completely unnecessary risks.”
Marie Stopes, herself, was an iconic figure in women’s reproductive health and is credited with changing the way in which society viewed the rights of woman – and men – to control their own fertility In 1921, she opened the United Kingdom’s first family planning clinic in London.
Almost a century later, when the Belfast clinic opened late last year, it was soon beset by controversy and threats from anti-abortion protestors and politicians. While the clinic received widespread support from pro-Choice advocates and the public, many acknowledged that the clinic would not be able to do nearly enough, considering the need and the legal restrictions.
Currently, the Belfast Marie Stopes clinic is being investigated by the Northern Irish government. Representatives of Marie Stopes have said that the investigation is not impacting its service delivery and the clinic is fully operational and working within the restrictions of current legislation.
The 1861 Offences Against The Person Act, which makes abortion a criminal offence, was introduced under British Rule when Ireland was one political entity and remains in force to this day in both the North and the Republic. The two are linked by this law and by a disenfranchisement of women that has crossed religious boundaries. Thousands of Irish women must travel abroad when they require abortions, often at great financial and emotional expense. Each year about 1,000 women from Northern Ireland leave home for these terminations, generally to England. An additional 4,000 from the Irish Republic do the same.
“You are going to have it whether you like it or not.”
In the midst of all of this, there are real women in need abound, and some who are trying to help. Mara Clarke, who began her career in pro-choice advocacy as a volunteer at The Haven Coalition in New York, which assisted women traveling to the city for abortions, is now director of the Abortion Support Network (ASN). Among those she’s tried to help: a pregnant 14-year-old who told her doctor that she could not have a baby. In reply, the physician shouted: “You are going to have it whether you like it or not.” Another young woman who needed an abortion was going to ask the man who raped her for travel money. Clarke is concerned that the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast will have very little impact on the vast majority who need abortions, only serving those meeting the strict requirements and able to afford the private clinic’s charge of £350, plus a £80 consultation for a total fee of £430 ($570) per termination.
“Saying there is no demand for this service in Northern Ireland is simply denying a need that clearly does exist”, says Jessica Leonard, 23, a Belfast student. “The opening of the clinic is a very important step forward for women’s rights in Northern Ireland. This is a basic human rights issue – women deserve to be able to make their own informed choices about their bodies.”
Two months after the Marie Stopes clinic opened in Belfast, members of the formidable pro-life group “Precious Life” continue to protest outside on Thursdays and Saturdays, as patients arrive. Bernadette Smyth, founder of Precious Life and a spokesperson for its political arm, “All Party Pro-Life,” says the type of abortion services offered by Marie Stopes constitute a criminal offense and that the clinic is attempting to bypass the restrictions on abortion that are currently part of Northern Irish law. “We’re policing the issue ourselves at the door,” she says. “If illegal abortions were being performed in Marie Stopes they would be reported immediately.”
Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin has asked the Northern Irish government to specifically determine if the clinic is in compliance with current legislation.
Unlike other Marie Stopes clinics in the United Kingdom, which operate in partnership with the National Health Service (NHS), it is also unclear how the private clinic in Belfast will be regulated. Precious Life’s contribution to the Stormont investigation, and Larkin’s personal pro-life views, have raised concerns about the partiality of such an inquiry. Pro-choice groups have not been granted the same involvement.
According to the best available count, only between 30 and 40 abortions are performed each year in Northern Ireland compared to the count of nearly 1,000 who travel abroad for the procedure.
On The Issues Magazine – Susan Kraft
In Northern Ireland, politicians from both Unionist and Nationalist parties have continued to vehemently oppose adopting the 1967 Abortion Act in force throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. The Alliance party is the only mainstream political party which allows a free vote on the issue rather than enforcing the party whip. The act allows for the wider provision of abortions, often for free through the National Health Service (NHS).
And so, due to the uncertainty, misinformation and highly contentious views surrounding the issue of abortion, Marie Stopes is attempting to provide support for the many women who may feel uncomfortable going to the physicians or other medical professionals within their local communities for advice.
Women reluctant to turn to the health services, or who don’t meet the strict requirements, or who cannot travel abroad, have been known to induce miscarriages with medical abortion pills bought on the internet, without any medical support or supervision. Cases from Ireland range from crisis pregnancies, to victims of rape, to mothers of large families facing tough financial challenges and struggling to support their children already. These women often feel they have no alternatives or support at home.
A Belfast Telegraph newspaper survey in November found that 45% of people in Northern Ireland support a woman’s right to choose, while 26% believe laws should be toughened to make terminations available only if a mother would die from the continuation of the pregnancy. Pro-choice support was higher among women, particularly 18-24 year olds, and largely the same among Protestants and Catholics. An anonymous survey in 2012 of Stormont assembly members found 66% of respondents supported the right to abortion in the case of rape, a rise from 34% three years ago.
Since Marie Stopes opened in Belfast the Family Planning Association (FPA) has been inundated with calls from women in Northern Ireland and from the Republic. With a clear demand for access to safe, legal abortion In Ireland and the current developments in the Republic in regards to legislation, the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast is a major step towards open public and political dialogue on the issue of abortion and women’s rights regarding sexual and reproductive health.
Caelainn Hogan is an Irish freelance journalist who has reported from South Sudan to Lebanon on issues ranging from refugee crises to LGBT rights. Her work has appeared in The Irish Times and The Sunday Times, among others. She can be reached at [email protected]