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Is This a Tipping Point in the Abortion Debate in Northern Ireland?

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Two weeks ago, I was in the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where Dawn Purvis, director of the clinic, had been up since 4.30am doing media interviews to mark the clinic's first anniversary.

We'd opened the doors to the BBC's Good Morning Ulster breakfast show and they broadcast their show live from the clinic, something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

As they left the producer said to me "For all those who say you're not transparent, well, you let us in. How much more transparent can you get?"

He was referring to repeated requests for numbers of abortions carried out in this ground-breaking, controversial sexual health clinic. And since it opened its doors a year ago, it has provided services to hundreds of men and women in Northern Ireland for whom such a clinic was long overdue.

But the focus, as we knew it would be, was on the numbers of terminations carried out in the past 12 months, and in common with the Department of Health here, MSI does not discuss numbers.

Confidentiality is incredibly important in this area of healthcare. The law governing abortion is extremely tight in Northern Ireland, and very few women meet the legal requirements for termination which is why many women have to travel to other parts of the UK.

The law is even more restrictive in the Republic of Ireland, where abortion is legal only in cases of a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill was passed earlier this year, and government ministers have said that there will be no more abortion legislation during the lifetime of this parliament.

In a controversial move, BPAS, a British abortion charity, has took out an advert in the Irish Times this week saying "We'll take care of your women until your government does".

They highlight the additional stress and cost of having to travel overseas to terminate a pregnancy. It's estimated that eleven women make the journey from Ireland to England for an abortion every day.

Behind the politics lie the very real lives of the women and families these laws affect. Three weeks ago, the BBC's The Nolan Show broke the story of two women from Belfast who sought abortion because of severe foetal abnormality.

One of them, Sarah Ewart, spoke out about her experience of being forced to travel outside her country for treatment because doctors are too frightened by new guidelines introduced by the Department of Health in April to treat them.

The most powerful voices in this debate come from ordinary women and men. More of them are speaking out, like the father of four who phoned The Nolan Show to express his disbelief that men are making these decisions without reference to the women they affect.

If feels as if change is in the air, and as with most significant change, it's starting with ordinary people. People like Savita Halappanavar, who died in the Republic of Ireland last year because her life was deemed secondary to the foetus she was miscarrying.

People like Dawn Purvis and her team who put themselves on the line every day to run the Marie Stopes clinic for women and men in Northern Ireland. And people like Sarah Ewart, whose bravery and dignity in an appalling personal situation have touched so many people here.

There were a handful of protesters outside the BBC two weeks ago, angry at the coverage being given to this issue. A journalist came down to interview one of the women, keen to make sure both sides were heard.

Her story of losing an extremely disabled baby a few days after birth was heart-breaking, and I'm glad she had the chance to tell it.

Her decision had been difficult, but it was incredibly important to her that she had been able to make it. So I felt uneasy in her belief that her choice to carry to term a foetus with no chance of survival should be imposed on every woman.

Nothing here is black and white; there is no easy path to tread. But it's clear that Northern Ireland is once more on a journey, and ordinary men and women are in the driving seat. I'd imagine the politicians are fastening their seat belts.

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