Larkin gives abortion evidence to closed justice committee

John Larkin John Larkin is giving evidence to the Justice Committee

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Northern Ireland's attorney general has given evidence to the justice committee at Stormont on the criminal law relating to abortion.

This follows John Larkin's offer to assist the committee with any inquiry it conducts into the issue after the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast.

It is the first private medical clinic to offer abortion in Northern Ireland.

The committee is hearing the evidence in closed session.

When asked by the BBC why the committee was taking the evidence out of the public eye an Assembly press officer said: "It is a matter for each committee to determine whether to hold a particular meeting in public or closed session."

The minutes of the committee meeting which issued the invitation on 14 November said they also wanted oral evidence on issues that may require further exploration and clarification.

They also stated the committee wanted to refer Mr Larkin's initial offer of assistance to the Committee for Procedures and to "highlight the deficit regarding his participation in assembly proceedings, in relation to the human rights guidance for a range of criminal justice organisations, that he has a statutory responsibility to produce and lay in the assembly".

The Justice Committee had to decline an offer from the attorney general to question witnesses as part of an inquiry into the clinic.

The clinic has said it will provide terminations within Northern Ireland's current legal framework - where abortions are not illegal but are very strictly controlled.

An anti-abortion group has called for the clinic to be shut down, but Abortion Rights welcomed its opening.

Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, is not covered by an Abortion Act.

Abortions can be carried out only to preserve the life of the mother or if continuing the pregnancy would have other serious, permanent physical or mental health effects.

There is strict assessment regarding any impact on mental well-being and the woman must consult with two clinicians.

The Marie Stopes clinic has said it will carry out medical, not surgical, procedures only up to nine weeks gestation and only within the existing legal framework.

The strict rules on abortion in Northern Ireland do not prevent women from travelling to the rest of the UK for the procedure.

A 24-week limit for abortion applies in England, Wales and Scotland, where abortions are allowed under certain conditions.

They include that continuing with the pregnancy would involve a greater risk to the physical or mental health of the woman, or her existing children, than having a termination.

The permission of two doctors - or one in an emergency - is also needed.

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