Northern Ireland

'Abortions only via NHS' law change bid by two MLAs

pregnancy test
Image caption Abortions are not illegal in NI but are very strictly controlled.

Two Northern Ireland assembly members are attempting to change the law to make it illegal to perform an abortion outside the NHS.

The DUP's Paul Givan and the SDLP's Alban Maginness have unveiled a joint amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill.

They said they were confident it would win sufficient support to pass into law in Northern Ireland this year.

They added they were closing a loophole in the law that appeared with the opening of private clinic Marie Stopes.

The plan to amend the law, revealed to the BBC, comes after the opening of a private abortion and family planning clinic in Belfast last autumn.

Marie Stopes International has said it operates within the current law in Northern Ireland, which is different from the rest of the UK as it only allows for abortion when the mother's physical or mental health is in danger.

Mr Givan, who chairs the assembly's justice committee, said there are concerns it is not sufficiently regulated and the amendment would ensure that only the NHS could carry out abortions in Northern Ireland

"We're responding to the challenge that was presented when the Marie Stopes clinic opened in Northern Ireland and that revealed a loophole that private clinics are wholly unregulated, there's no form of accountability, no transparency," he said.

"Obviously on something as important as abortion, which is a criminal offence in Northern Ireland, we need to be satisfied that that issue is subject to the highest level of scrutiny.

"We believe the National Health Service is best placed to do that."

Mr Maginness said that if the amendment passed into law anyone carrying out an abortion outside the NHS could face a new sentence of up to 10 years in prison or a fine.

Another committee member, Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott, has also signed the amendment.

The amendment was tabled with the assembly's bills office on Wednesday morning.

The Criminal Justice Bill is due for its "further consideration" stage on Tuesday when the amendment will be debated.

In a joint statement they said they had grave concerns about the ability of a private clinic such as Marie Stopes to carry out abortion procedures without "any form of transparency, oversight or accountability".

Image caption The law governing abortion in Northern Ireland is different to the rest of the UK.

"Further it is dangerous that any organisation should receive financial reward from carrying out abortions."

They also pointed out that the NHS is subject to "the most rigorous levels of scrutiny through management structures to boards to the minister".

Mr Givan said that, regardless of one's view on abortion, this was about accountability and that it was not right that a private clinic could perform abortions without being regulated.

Mr Maginness added: "The net effect of the amendment is to ensure private clinics can't carry out abortion practices."

He also said the amendment had been worked on for some time and the MLAs had taken advice from a range of sources including the Attorney General.

The Marie Stopes clinic opened in Belfast in October, amid protests from pro-life groups.

Abortions are not illegal in NI but are very strictly controlled.

Tracey McNeill, director of Marie Stopes International, told the justice committee in January that while they are not required to be regulated they want to work within the legal framework in Northern Ireland.

'Strict assessment'

Abortions can be carried out in Northern Ireland 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.

But Attorney General John Larkin - who is the chief legal advisor to the Stormont executive - wrote to the Stormont Justice Committee inviting them to investigate the operations of the Belfast clinic.

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.

Image caption The clinic said it would provide terminations within Northern Ireland's current legal framework

It said that the health professionals in the clinic will be from Northern Ireland and that they will make the assessments, although the views of the woman's own GP will be taken into consideration.

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

More on this story

Around the BBC