Marie Stopes UK has announced it is closing its independent clinic in Belfast following the Government’s move to fund abortion treatment for Northern Irish women.

In June, following a Labour-led push for a change in the law, the British government announced that fees for women from Northern Ireland travelling to England to undergo abortion procedures would be lifted.

Previously Northern Irish women could travel to England for a private abortion, but could not undergo the procedure for free on the NHS.

Marie Stopes said the Belfast clinic’s closure on December 8 will enable the charity to “focus its resources so that Northern Irish women can better access funded treatment in England”.

Richard Bentley, managing director at Marie Stopes UK, said: “Following the UK Government’s ground-breaking move to fund abortion services for Northern Irish women using our clinics in England, we believe we can better serve Northern Irish women through our national referral service than through an independent clinic in one part of Northern Ireland. Therefore we have taken the difficult decision that our Belfast clinic will close in December 2017.

“When we opened in Belfast, many local women, and even some local GPs, were not aware of a woman’s legal options. For five years, our Belfast team has provided the services allowed within a highly restrictive legal framework and worked tirelessly to drive awareness of women’s options.”

He continued: “We are incredibly proud of all that our team has achieved in Belfast. However, we also have to recognise that, due to the UK Government’s funding announcement, the way Northern Irish women access services is changing. Today more than three-quarters of the Northern Irish women we see come to us directly via our national referral service. We expect this proportion to increase further now that treatment in England has been made more accessible.

“Ultimately, we believe that Northern Irish law should change to give women the right to access services without having to travel to England. Until that happens, we will continue to provide funded treatment for Northern Irish women in England – services that they should be legally granted in Northern Ireland.”

Green Party MLA Clare Bailey said she is awaiting an update on the Health Department’s guidance to GPs in Northern Ireland on the new access provided in England.

She said: “While I am saddened that this local provision has ended, the clinic achieved so much in the past five years by providing reproductive healthcare so vitally needed here, but also in keeping the abortion needs of women and girls in Northern Ireland on the political agenda.

“The fact that women and girls from here can now access abortion in England for free has clearly impacted on the service. I am proud of my time as clinic escort, and to have been part of such a transformative movement.

“While the Public Prosecution Service has now stated clearly that they can see no risk of criminal prosecution for NHS employees in Northern Ireland who refer women to NHS hospitals and clinics in the rest of the UK for abortions, I have written to the Permanent Secretary of Health Richard Pengelly to update me on the Department’s progress on providing  guidance to GP’s on the new access provided in England with regards to free abortions and ensuring a clear pathway for women accessing abortion from Northern Ireland in the rest of the UK. As yet I have not received a satisfactory answer.”

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