Authorities in dark on abortion figures

Pro-life campaigner Bernie Smyth outside the offices of Marie Stopes in Belfast. December 8, 2017. PIC: PB
Pro-life campaigner Bernie Smyth outside the offices of Marie Stopes in Belfast. December 8, 2017. PIC: PB

After five years Belfast’s Marie Stopes abortion clinic has now wound down its operations – but the government does not know exactly how many terminations have been carried out by the centre.

The centre, run by a charitable organisation headquartered in England, opened in October 2012 and carried out non-surgical terminations (such as those involving abortion pills).

Until then it is understood abortions in the Province were available only via the NHS.

In November 2012, in response to a question about how the Department for Health intended to monitor the clinic, then-health minister Edwin Poots said “my department is developing a system to collect comprehensive statistics on terminations taking place in Northern Ireland, regardless of setting”.

Now the clinic has shut, the News Letter asked the department whether it knows how many abortions it carried out.

It said it did not collect this information, adding: “In developing a system of data collection relating to termination of pregnancy, it was established that independent clinics could not be required to provide information. This would require a duty to provide information being established in law.”

It added the clinic “has been subject to inspections by RQIA”, the health inspections watchdog. However, the watchdog told the News Letter that whilst it does inspect the facility because it regulates private doctors, abortion services “are not subject to regulation by RQIA”.

Abortion is relatively-strictly controlled in Northern Ireland and breaches can fall under criminal law, although the PSNI has said it is “not responsible for the regulation of any health clinics within Northern Ireland, or the enforcement of guidelines relating to them”.

Anti-abortion advocate Bernie Smyth delivered a speech at the clinic in Great Victoria Street yesterday, the scheduled day of its closure.

“When Marie Stopes opened here we vowed that we would close it down and we take full credit for it,” she said.

Marie Stopes – which has always pledged to operate within Northern Ireland’s relatively-tight abortion law framework – said on Tuesday it was closing the clinic because the UK government has now offered to pay for Northern Irish women to have abortions on mainland UK where the law is more relaxed.

Most visits by Northern Irish women to its centres in England are arranged by a hotline, not via the Belfast clinic, and the organisation said it will now “focus its resources so that Northern Irish women can better access funded treatment in England”.

Marie Stopes said having a clinic in Belfast helped it “drive awareness of women’s options”, adding: “We’re proud that by having a presence in the city, we’ve been instrumental in moving the debate on.”