Healthcare charity Marie Stopes International today announced that it will open a centre in Belfast to provide sexual health services and family planning services, including offering medical abortion up to nine weeks of pregnancy.
Announcing the move, Dawn Purvis, Programme Director at Marie Stopes Northern Ireland said:
“We believe this is great news for the people of Northern Ireland because we will be able to meet their family planning and sexual health needs in a way that has not been seen here before.
We have a new, purpose built, centrally-located specialist centre; our team are highly trained and dedicated health care professionals; and our services will be delivered in a confidential, sensitive and non-judgemental way”.
Although abortion is technically legal in Northern Ireland in cases where the woman’s life is in immediate danger or at risk of long term damage to her physical or mental health, in practice the procedure is virtually impossible to obtain even in cases where the woman is extremely unwell.
Recent figures from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety list just 123 terminations carried out in Northern Ireland between 2008 and 2011.
Women seeking to end a pregnancy are forced to travel to the mainland UK or further abroad to obtain a safe, legal abortion. They are not entitled to use NHS abortion services elsewhere in the UK and must pay for the procedure and all associated costs themselves, which can amount to £2000.
In 2011, over 1000 women traveled to England to obtain abortion and since 1967, when abortion was legalised in England, Scotland and Wales but not in Northern Ireland, 50-70,000 women have made the trip.
It is hoped that by providing medical abortion up to nine weeks of pregnancy, the Marie Stopes facility will reduce the number of women who are forced to travel to England while sick and distressed.
Commenting on the news, Abortion Rights Campaign Co-ordinator Darinka Aleksic said,
“This is a groundbreaking move from Marie Stopes which should be welcomed by all those who believe that women in Northern Ireland have a right to excellent sexual and reproductive health services.
Women in Northern Ireland are UK taxpayers yet they are treated like second class citizens when it comes to abortion. Having to travel to the mainland or further abroad to access safe, legal abortion exacts a huge financial and emotional cost. Over 50,000 women have had to make this journey over the past 40 years and it is an injustice that must not be allowed to continue.
The opening of this centre will not solve all these problems and the fight for Northern Irish women to have the same rights as women in England, Scotland and Wales has a long way to go. But this is a real step forward.
Politicians at both Stormont and Westminster have a duty to protect the health and well being of Northern Irish women and to end this gross injustice. We will be watching with interest to see how they respond to this news.”