THE Marie Stopes Belfast abortion clinic could be closed within months after unionist and nationalist MLAs came together to table an amendment at Stormont that would outlaw abortions by private clinics.
In what appears to be a clever political move by opponents of abortion, the DUP’s Paul Givan and SDLP’s Alban Maginness yesterday tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill – which has been progressing through the Assembly for some time – which would introduce a new offence for ending the life of an unborn child.
The simple amendment – which will be debated and voted upon next Tuesday – would only provide a legal defence for those who work within the NHS and have carried out “lawful” abortions, such as in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.
Unionist MLAs are overwhelmingly pro-life so the amendment will only be defeated if 30 MLAs sign a petition of concern and a majority of nationalist MLAs – 22 or more – vote it down.
Sinn Fein, which with 29 MLAs could do so if it had support from a pro-choice MLA such as the Green Party’s Steven Agnew or Alliance’s Anna Lo, is split on the issue. And the use of petitions of concern by the DUP to defeat motions on issues such as gay marriage, which are not about unionism or nationalism, has been sharply criticised by both Sinn Fein and the Greens. Alliance has described the petition of concern mechanism as “iniquitous”.
The timing of the vote, just two days before the Mid Ulster by-election, also makes it potentially difficult for Sinn Fein to vote down a pro-life amendment.
If the amendment is not defeated next Tuesday, it could only be stopped by voting down the entire Justice Bill.
In a joint statement yesterday, Mr Givan and Mr Maginnis said: “Abortion in Northern Ireland is regulated by the criminal justice system.
“The unborn child is given protection under our law, upholding the most basic of human rights – the right to life.
“As a consequence of recent developments through the opening of a private clinic in Belfast a challenge has been presented to legislators.
“Following evidence to the Justice Committee from representatives of the Marie Stopes Clinic, grave concerns surfaced regarding the ability of private clinics to carry out abortive procedures without any form of transparency, oversight or accountability to the public.”
The MLAs also expressed concern at the “financial reward” for abortions at private clinics and added: “We invite MLAs across all political parties to consider supporting this amendment and are already encouraged by support we have received from [UUP MLA] Tom Elliot and others who recognise the benefit in acting collectively in the interests of everyone in our society on this important issue.”
TUV leader Jim Allister welcomed the move, pointing out that after the Marie Stopes clinic opened last October he had suggested such a move.
The North Antrim MLA said: “I welcome the fact that this suggestion has been picked up on and I look forward to the pro-life majority in the Assembly ensuring that this amendment makes it on to the statute book.”
Mr Allister added: “This amendment is, as I suggested in November, designed to ensure that the public have confidence that the law is not being flouted by those operating outside the NHS and its regulations.”
Last night a Marie Stopes spokeswoman said that it operated within the law in each of the 41 countries where it works and added: “Should any changes in the law occur, we would comply with them.”