Over 100 women sign abortion change protest letter

Pro choice campaigners outside Marie Stopes The proposed abortion amendment follows the opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast

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Over 100 people, mostly women, have signed an open letter in protest at the proposed abortion amendment which would make it illegal to perform an abortion outside the NHS.

Those who signed admit to taking the abortion pill or helping others to do so.

Alliance for Choice, which published the letter, is concerned about further restrictions on the current law.

It wants MLAs to have an informed and reasoned debate on abortion rights

Goretti Horgan from the Alliance for Choice organisation which published the letter, explained why she signed.

"The word woman or mother is not mentioned anywhere in the amendment," she said.

"It is entirely about restricting abortion without any reference at all to the women who are involved in this situation.

"That's why we felt that we had to make the politicians sit-up and realise that actually abortion is a reality of Northern Irish life and that they can't just keep on saying that nobody here wants abortion."

The amendment to change the law was tabled by the DUP's Paul Givan, who chairs the justice committee, and the SDLP's Alban Maginness.

The Justice Minister told BBC's Sunday Sequence that the proposed amendment could potentially make some methods of contraception currently available illegal.

David Ford, who is opposed to the proposed changes, said the amendment had not been properly thought through.

Undermining

"There are questions in it in the reference to a child at any stage which go beyond any understanding we have in UK or I believe also Irish law which could potentially mean that the provision of the intrauterine device (IUD) or the morning after pill would actually be, because in certain circumstances they work to prevent implantation of the fertilised egg, that could actually mean that they would be unlawful if performed, for example, in a doctors surgery," he said.

In response the Health Minister, Edwin Poots, said the comments by Mr Ford were a "clumsy attempt to cause confusion and unnecessary concern".

"He should immediately desist from this approach," Mr Poots said.

"The most basic reading of the amendment makes it clear that proof is required that 'life' has been ended and in each instance cited there is no proof that life ever began whether that is viewed as fertilisation or implantation."

Meanwhile a leading obstetrician told the BBC's Sunday Politics programme that a recommendation in the draft guidelines on abortion "undermines the competence of medical staff".

The 30-page document, titled 'the limited circumstances for lawful termination in Northern Ireland', include a recommendation that a consultant psychiatrist should be involved where a mental health assessment is required.

Prof Jim Dornan said he believes medical staff have the competencies and experience required to carry out their own mental health assessment without the involvement of a consultant psychiatrist.

Accountability

The draft guidelines also propose that two doctors rather than one should make the assessment.

There is an allowance for conscientious objection and a new section dealing with accountability and collecting data on each abortion - the reason given must be clearly documented.

Pro life campaigner The opening of the Belfast Marie Stopes clinic was met with some opposition

Abortion is only allowed in very restricted circumstances in Northern Ireland.

The laws covering abortion in Northern Ireland are the 1861 Offences against the Person Act, and the Criminal Justice act from 1945. It is a criminal offence, which carries a life sentence.

The only exceptions are to save a woman's life, or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Last year official figures confirmed that at least 40 terminations a year are carried out on these grounds.

More than a thousand women a year who do not fit in these categories travel from Northern Ireland each year to have an abortion in other parts of the UK.

In England, Wales and Scotland access to abortion is covered by the 1967 Abortion Act. That permits terminations up to 24 weeks of pregnancy on grounds that include risk to the physical or mental health of the woman or existing children in the family, and abnormalities that could lead to a child being "seriously handicapped".

It is also allowed over 24 weeks if a woman's life or health is at serious risk, and for serious disabilities.

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