The Fight to Save Northern Ireland’s Only Non-NHS Abortion Clinic
A bunch of people want to shut down Mary Stopes International and make life even harder for women who don't want to be pregnant.
An abortion rally in Dublin. (Image via)
The Belfast branch of the Mary Stopes International abortion clinic opened in October 2012. It is the only non-NHS abortion clinic in Northern Ireland, which is the only part of the UK that isn't covered by the 1967 Abortion Act. Why is this important?
Well, under Northern Irish law, the clinic is still only licensed to carry out medical abortions when the patient's health is under “serious risk”, which is pretty much what the NHS is also supposed to be doing, only their vocabulary "serious risk" translates to "life or death". The fact alone that MSI is being allowed to exist, has so far given plenty of Irish women hope that the laws of their country could actually at some point become humane. It's also saving a lot of Irish women from both sides of the border the few hundred quid they'd have to pay for an abortion trip to England – which you know, could prove handy to someone undergoing surgery, giving up a baby and faced with a prison sentence all at the same time.
Yet that's not enough for Labour sister-party the SDLP, who can't handle the idea that a private company is making profit by abortions, so they teamed up with the conservative DUP to propose an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that would outlaw all terminations performed outside NHS hospitals. The SDLP claim nothing will change for patients except the location of terminations but pro-choice campaigners disagree, arguing the NHS' stance on the matter will remain much stricter than it needs to be.
The debate escalated this weekend, when 100 women signed an open letter to the Northern Ireland Assembly stating they had taken abortion pills bought online. Which, according to the Irish 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and the 1945 Criminal Justice Act, is extremely illegal and punishable by a life behind bars.
One of those signatories is Alliance for Choice spokeswoman Goretti Horgan. I rang her to find out why this clinic is so important.
VICE: Hey Goretti, you and 99 other women put yourselves at risk of a life sentence for an abortion clinic. Why is Marie Stopes so important?
Goretti Horgan: We think that this amendment isn’t just about closing down Marie Stopes. It’s also about closing down any debate about abortion, a debate which has never been had here. The language of the bill says it all; there is no mention of the word “woman”. Not once. It’s already the case that the only legal abortions are if the woman’s life or health are at “grave” or “serious risk” of long-term or permanent injury. This bill won’t change that but what it does do is limit where any abortions are carried out – to NHS hospitals.
Why’s that so bad? Surely a hospital is the safest place to have an abortion.
We’d be fine about it if abortions were actually available in NHS hospitals. The problem is that you can’t really get them there, even when your health is seriously in danger you cannot access an NHS abortion in Northern Ireland, except in the most extreme of circumstances – basically, your life has to be in danger.
It’s different in the rest of the UK though, right?
Yes, in the rest of the UK you can get an abortion if the risk to your health is greater as a result of continuing the pregnancy than it would be if you had a termination. For those less than 12 weeks in, it’s always the case that it’ll be safer to have an abortion than give birth so that’s why it’s relatively easy to get an abortion in England.
In November, a woman in the Republic of Ireland died after being refused a potentially life-saving termination. Are you worried we may see cases like this in Northern Ireland?
We’re fairly sure that the very small number of abortions that do happen here are for life-saving reasons. So chances are that somebody in her position would be unlikely to die here in Northern Ireland. But there is that question of when does a risk to a woman’s health become a risk to her life? There are cases of women who’ve been told not to get pregnant again due to their health or age, and then are refused abortions.
An abortion rally in Dublin. (Image via)
These women are then forced to travel to somewhere like England if they want to go through with the abortion?
Yes. Alliance for Choice have actually in the past helped some very ill women travel to England but when they got there the doctors were afraid to take them on because they were so ill. They said these women should’ve been in NHS hospitals and yet they weren’t able to access abortions here. Women have to leave Ireland to travel to England in the middle of cancer treatment to access abortions – this happens all the time here.
Would those women not be legally entitled to an abortion?
Yes, but the NHS here repeatedly refused them. That’s why we published the open letter to the Northern Irish Assembly; over 100 of us said that we have broken the law here in relation to abortion. We published that letter to make a point that the politicians that are pushing for this amendment are, quite frankly, living in cloud cuckoo land. They’re refusing to acknowledge the legality of women’s lives and health in Northern Ireland.
There’s also a financial cost involved in travelling to get an abortion, does this create a class divide in who can and cannot have an abortion?
Absolutely. There is a real class issue when it comes to abortions here. I’m talking about non-medical abortions now, basically whether you have a choice or not depends on the class you come from, it depends on whether you have money or not. If you have a decent income, if you have a credit card that’s not maxed out, it’s not a problem – you get on a plane and go and pay for a private abortion in England. If you’re poor, a single parent, on a low income or maybe on benefits, then really you don’t have any options at all, except to break the law – to go on the internet and get the abortion pill. So they’re criminalising women because they’re poor, really.
What would you like to see come of this debate?
We want equal rights with the women living in the rest of the UK. We believe that as long as Northern Ireland remains part of the UK and we’re paying the same tax, national insurance, etc then we should also enjoy the same rights and same health care as people in England, Scotland and Wales.
Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewfrancey
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