The Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast has now been open for a few weeks and continues to need the support of everyone who believes in a woman’s right to choose. Marie Stopes has asked supporters not to stand outside the clinic (alongside the clinic’s opponents) and so a march of support has been organised this Saturday in Belfast City Centre: Assemble outside the Art College at 1.30pm and march from York Street to Belfast City Hall, where a rally will take place. The march is open to women and men.
The clinic does, of course, offer a wide range of sexual health services as well as early stage medical abortions within the law. We should remember that the opening of an alternative option for contraceptive advice and provision is likely to reduce the necessity for abortion rather than add to it. Therefore everyone who believes in women’s choice should support the clinic, even if they personally would not opt for abortion.
It is particularly important for everyone in favour to come along because a number of the ‘usual suspects’ will be missing. All the main political parties are either anti-abortion or allow a conscience vote – which means it’s OK to have on your conscience that women travel to Britain for abortions, or order pills on the internet. So the stalwarts of many demonstrations, the SDLP and Sinn Féin, won’t be there. The Greens may be, as they allow a conscience vote.
But this is yet another reason why Northern Ireland needs the Labour Party. At our General Meeting on 21st September, we voted unanimously for the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. Our position is set out in the statement below:
The Labour Party in Northern Ireland is proud to support the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast.
We stand firmly for the right of women to comprehensive sexual health and family services, including the provision of medical abortions up to nine weeks of pregnancy.
Abortion is technically illegal in Northern Ireland but exceptions are made where the woman is at risk of long term damage to her physical or mental health. This means that safe and legal terminations are difficult to obtain, even in the most extreme of circumstances.
We are still the only part of the UK where women don’t have the legal right to an abortion - the 1967 Abortion Act, which empowered women in England, Wales and Scotland was never extended to Northern Ireland.
Since 1967, roughly 70,000 women have travelled to Great Britain for private terminations. Last year alone, over 1000 women travelled to England for such procedures, at a cost of around £2000 each.
The establishment of the Marie Stopes clinic will reduce the number of unfortunates who are forced to travel to England. We welcome that, as we welcome the introduction of a range of sexual and reproductive health services which will be available in the clinic.
But the establishment of the Marie Stopes clinic on its own is not enough.
In September, Labour’s Northern Ireland members voted unanimously for the extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland.
We are not alone. Most opinion in Northern Ireland is pro choice, yet abortion here is still governed by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.
The LPNI recognise the reality that the majority of people here support liberalisation of the abortion laws, not further restrictions. It is easy to take the moral high ground and deny women in Northern Ireland the right to choice, but moralising can neither reduce crisis pregnancy nor help those forced to travel to Great Britain every year for an abortion.
Women in Birmingham and Bristol have abortion rights if they need them, why not women in Ballymena and Belfast?
It is time that our Health Minister - whether it is Edwin Poots or Jim Wells - recognises that you can’t have maternal health without reproductive health. And reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortion.