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Marie Stopes Director Dr Paula Franklin On Opening First Northern Ireland Clinic

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Abortion is, technically, illegal in Northern Ireland, except in exceptional circumstances. Which is why it's pretty audacious that Marie Stopes is opening the first private clinic offering terminations there.

The 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised abortion in England, Wales and Scotland, does not apply in Northern Ireland - meaning many women seeking to end a pregnancy are forced to travel to the mainland UK or further abroad and pay to obtain a safe, legal abortion.

But according to Marie Stopes, the Belfast centre, which will provide medical abortions for women up to nine weeks’ pregnant as well as family planning advice, can work within the current "restrictive" legal framework which allows abortion if a woman’s life is at immediate risk and or if there may be a long term or permanent risk to her physical or mental health.

pro life

The location is being kept secret as the move has outraged pro-life campaigners

The plans for the clinic have been in the making for two years and Marie Stopes says it's not there to advocate for an extension of the Abortion Act, but to help women.

According to Dr Paula Franklin, medical director of Marie Stopes "our agenda here is not to change the law, our agenda is about to improve the access".

"Our purpose is not advocacy, it's service delivery... Abortions already happen, but they're incredibly difficult to access."

abortion

Pro-choice campaigners have welcomed the decision to open the clinic

Recent figures from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety list just 123 terminations were carried out in Northern Ireland itself between 2008 and 2011. In contrast last year 1007 women from Northern Ireland went to Wales or England for a termination.

The clinic say some women who meet the criteria to get an abortion in Northern Ireland don't know they do and travel abroad to seek a termination - or continue with their pregnancy. But currently they are not offering any predictions on how many women they'll help.

Marie Stopes say would be "delighted" to have a relationship with the NHS in Northern Ireland. "I think what we'd like to do first is get the centre open and get our services operational,” says Dr Franklin.

"I've seen women from Northern Ireland who've had to make enormous sacrifices to get to clinics in England. They've had to sell things, take out loans,” Dr Franklin continues.

"They will have to pay for the services. but they won't have the same travel costs and hopefully it will be a lot easier for them, emotionally and psychologically to get closer to home."

The new medical facility has provoked outrage among the anti-abortion lobby with Bernadette Smith, from the Precious Life group, saying she was "outraged."

"There will be an outcry from the people, from government and from the churches."

Dr Franklin’s calm about the reaction. "Yes I think there will be a lot of backlash. I think a proportion of the people in Northern Ireland will be outraged but a significant number of people will be delighted," she says.

"I suppose the thing that, I wouldn't say this in terms of challenging, abortion, family planning, contraception, these are matters of health but they're also matters in emotion. People therefore get very passionate about it. The medical evidence is the medical evidence, it's important that we keep those things separate.

"Very few babies survive who are born before 24 weeks. Those that do survive have very intensive support. If we're talking about survival and gestation rates, even in countries such as England, the data for very early neonates is very poor."

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