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First clinic to offer abortion opens in Northen Ireland

[The Irish Times, Belfast, 10 October 2012] The first sexual and reproductive health centre to offer abortion services on the island of Ireland will open in Belfast next Thursday.

Marie Stopes Northern Ireland, based in purpose-built city centre premises on Great Victoria Street, will offer contraceptive options, HIV testing, STI testing and treatment, ultrasound scanning, and medical abortion up to nine weeks gestation.

Anyone over the age of 16 can access the centre, including people from the Republic, and services are available by appointment only. Marie Stopes International, which is a not-for-profit organisation, is the UK’s leading provider of sexual and reproductive healthcare services. It has been established for over 30 years, and works in 42 countries around the world.

The programme director at the new centre is Dawn Purvis, former Stormont Assembly member, and former leader of the Progressive Unionist party.

Speaking to the Irish Times, she said: “This is the first centre of its kind in Northern Ireland, and we believe that it is great news for people living here, because we will be able to offer a fully integrated range of family planning and sexual health services in a way that has never been available before.

"Our team are highly trained and dedicated health care professionals, and our services will be delivered in a sensitive, confidential and non-judgemental way.”

In providing early medical abortions, the Marie Stopes centre will operate under existing laws in Northern Ireland, which are notoriously ambiguous.

The main legislative restriction is the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861. Since 1967, the Abortion Act has governed abortion in England, Scotland and Wales but Northern Ireland was excluded, and the 1861 Act still applies there.

The 1945 Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Act also applies to abortion in Northern Ireland. It allows the abortion of a child ‘capable of being born alive’ only where the mother’s life would be otherwise at risk.

In 2009 the Department of Health published a document which, for the first time, provided guidance to health professionals in Northern Ireland on terminating pregnancy.

Later that year a High Court judge held that the guidelines were misleading and should be withdrawn for reconsideration. A new public consultation process on counselling and conscientious objection was undertaken as part of the redrafting. Last month, the Family Planning Association (FPA), a sexual health charity, was granted

High Court permission to challenge the government’s alleged failure to issue new guidelines on abortion. Previous attempts to challenge existing legal restrictions have been met with fierce opposition from politicians and anti-abortion campaigners.

Ms Purvis said: “The Marie Stopes centre will be offering the same service that is currently available from the NHS in Northern Ireland, only within the current legal framework, when the life of the pregnant woman is at immediate risk and/or if there is a long term, serious or permanent risk to her physical or mental wellbeing.”

Following a consultation with the client, and a scan to confirm the existence of the pregnancy, the length of gestation, and any possible complications, two doctors will assess whether she is eligible for a termination. The cost for an early medical abortion - which is a non-surgical procedure - excluding the consultation fee, is £350.

“We offer a safe place for women and men to find support, be provided with help and counselling, to feel that they are being listened to and not judged. It is a matter of choice, every step of the way,” said Ms Purvis.

“A woman may decide that she does not want to choose a termination. If she does, then offering early medical abortion cuts out the stress of having to travel outside Northern Ireland to access those services.”

Last year, 1007 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England or Wales for an abortion, as did 4149 women from the Republic. “When women are faced with a crisis pregnancy, it’s a time of great personal turmoil. Knowing that someone is here to help them come to a decision reduces the trauma and upset,” said Ms Purvis.

“Essentially, we are here to promote good and healthy sexual relationships. Where that doesn’t work out so well, we can deal with that too.”

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