Abortion amendment fails to win cross-community support

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A proposal to prevent private clinics performing abortions in Northern Ireland failed to gain the necessary cross-community support, on 12 March 2013.

The amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill was backed by the DUP's Paul Givan and Jim Wells, the SDLP's Alban Maginness, Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott and the TUV's Jim Allister.

A petition of concern against the amendment was submitted by Sinn Fein and was supported by Alliance and the Green Party.

Rosie McCorley of Sinn Fein said she believed people were confused over her party's stance on abortion.

She emphasised that Sinn Fein was not in favour of abortion but that the option should be available in cases of rape, incest or when a woman's life was in danger.

Her party colleague, Raymond McCartney said the amendment raised "serious question about equality, rights and process".

The DUP's Edwin Poots, who was speaking in his role as an assembly member and not as health minister, said Marie Stopes, the private abortion and family planning clinic which opened in Belfast last autumn, had identified a gap in the law and the amendment sought to close this.

He said refusal to pass the amendment would mean Marie Stopes would continue to operate "over a cloud of darkness".

Mr Poots also described the Alliance support for the petition of concern as "sad". He claimed the Alliance position had changed and quoted former Alliance MLA Seamus Close as saying in 2001 that abortion "kills human beings".

Pat Ramsey of the SDLP said he supported the amendment and he believed Sinn Fein "had got it wrong". He said the credibility of Marie Stopes throughout the world "was not good".

His colleague, Alban Maginness, was one of those who had tabled the amendment. He said the amendment was not intended to change the law on how an abortion was carried out but would prevent "unregulated and unaccountable private clinics making financial gain from vulnerable women and their unborn children".

Anna Lo, the South Belfast Alliance MLA who signed the petition of concern, said that Marie Stopes had given assurances that they would only work within the current law. She said people were "turning a blind eye" to the 1,500 women who travelled from Northern Ireland to go to England for private abortions.

Her party colleague, Kieran McCarthy said he wanted to reject the "scurrilous, unwarranted, venomous and ridiculous comments" made earlier in the debate by members of the DUP against his party. He said remarks made by the DUP's Jonathan Bell against his "Presbyterian colleagues" were "unbelievable".

In the first part of the debate, Mr Bell said the NHS was the best place to support women and that was what Mr Dickson's "church had told me".

The TUV's Jim Allister said the amendment was "inescapably necessary" due to a lack of regulation and control.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew said he personally supported "greater liberalisation of the law in Northern Ireland" although he explained his party allowed for a matter of conscience. He said he was proud to support the petition of concern.

Justice Minister David Ford said there a need for regulation but said such a major change in the law could not be made at the "stroke of a pen" without a proper consultation.

"This provision could mean that a woman in a private clinic for elective surgery who develops a complication which requires termination to save her might have to be transferred to a hospital across rush hour traffic in the city because access to the hospital is still technically available," he said.

The minister also added that he was happy to accept his department's role in relation to this matter but said the role of regulating private health care was a role for the health department to consider.

Fifty-three MLAs backed the ban on private clinics - more than the 40 politicians who voted against.

The straight majority did not count as the amendment did not win enough support from nationalist MLAs.

The justice minister also proposed an amendment to the bill allowing for magistrates courts to operate on Sundays.

Mr Ford explained that the Sunday sittings would be required to deal with possible public order offences at the forthcoming G8 summit in Fermanagh, and possibly the World Police and Fire Games in Belfast.

He said many summary offences could attract sentences of up to eight months in prison.

The relevant summary offences could include riotous or disorderly behaviour, or obstructive sitting.

"This is not a power that I would see operating on any regular basis," he concluded.

Paul Givan of the DUP said his party agreed that this appeared to be a reasonable request but he had concerns that it might be used for other purposes, for instance against flag protesters.

Mr Givan said that for this reason a veto had been included that could be exercised by the First Minister.

The TUV's Jim Allister wanted to know why there could not be a sunset clause.

Stewart Dickson of Alliance and the UUP's Tom Elliott both supported the amendment.

It was passed on an oral vote.

The further consideration stage of the Criminal Justice Bill passed.

The first part of the debate can be viewed here.

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