Larkin's abortion inquiry role debated

Published Monday, 22 October 2012
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An offer from Northern Ireland's Attorney General to help with an inquiry into a new sexual health clinic in Belfast has been at the centre of a heated debate at Stormont.

Larkin's abortion inquiry role debated
Attorney General John Larkin. (© UTV)

Members of the Justice Committee will have to decide whether to take up John Larkin's offer, as they investigate the role and regulation of the Marie Stopes facility.

Mr Larkin QC is chief legal advisor to the Northern Ireland Executive and he wrote to the committee to ask them to look into the private clinic because it offers medical abortions.

But it has since emerged that Mr Larkin has strong personal opinions on abortion, calling into question his suitability to assist with an investigation.

In a radio interview back in 2008, before taking up the role of Attorney General, Mr Larkin said: "Tell me the logical distinction between destroying the unborn child in the womb, seconds before birth, and putting a bullet in the head of the child two days after it is born."

According to the DUP's Paul Givan, chair of the Justice Committee, the comments have no relevance when it comes to deciding if the Attorney General can be involved in the inquiry.

"It doesn't matter what position the Attorney General has on this, whether it is the so-called pro-choice position or the pro-life position," he told UTV.

"Ultimately, the Attorney General has a very clear legal role in all of this and will have to reflect the legal opinion of Northern Ireland - which is pro-life."

But Sinn Féin MLA Raymond McCartney, who is deputy chair of the Justice Committee, said the comments were "totally wrong and wholly inappropriate".

Comments such as those attributed to Mr Larkin do not help the debate.

Raymond McCartney, Sinn Féin

He added: "They will inevitably cast doubt over whether or not he has the ability, on this particular issue, to ensure his personal opinions do not interfere or cloud any assertion he makes with in regard to legal issues arising from the ongoing debate on abortion."

Mr McCartney said that, while the committee had been considering the Attorney General's offer to help question Marie Stopes representatives, it "would not be appropriate".

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said that Mr Larkin's personal views on abortion weren't the issue, but questioned whether he should be taking an active role in the inquiry.

"He's been using this broader idea of being a guardian of the law to contact the Justice Committee, which is fair enough," he said.

"But what he's doing is actually trying to embed himself in it, to the point where he was actually offering to conduct the questioning of witnesses on behalf of the committee."

Responding to that issue, TUV leader Jim Allister said: "Frankly, Mr Larkin might be better equipped than some MLAs I could think of."

The North Antrim MLA and barrister added that professionals often put their own views aside to do their job and that he didn't think the Attorney General's views posed a problem.

But Mr Allister was concerned by exactly when Health Minister Edwin Poots knew the Marie Stopes clinic was likely to open a branch in Northern Ireland.

"If the minister knew - as he appears to have known - since 30 January, then I find it staggering that, nine months later, he hadn't already put in place the regulation that we need," he said.

The critical issue is the regulation of the clinic, rather than some side-show about how it's done.

Jim Allister, TUV

Dr Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP said: "The Attorney General's office must be able to command the respect and trust of all people, with all shades of opinion.

"The Justice Committee has exercised its right to accept John Larkin's offer of help in investigating Marie Stopes International's operation in Belfast, but first, Mr Larkin must address these remarks and assure all sides of the argument that he is a fit and proper person to undertake this role in a reasoned, impartial way."

The Marie Stopes clinic opened on Thursday, amid protests by anti-abortion groups carrying graphic placards.

Pro-choice groups said they would not protest out of respect for those using the clinic, but a minority did take to the streets outside the city centre facility.

The clinic offers a range of services, including smear tests, ultrasound scans, STI and HIV testing and contraceptive options.

In cases where the life or mental health of a pregnant woman has been deemed by two doctors to be at serious risk, a medical abortion is available at a total cost of £430.

The procedure, which is not surgical but administered using tablets, will only be carried out if the woman is no more than nine weeks' pregnant.

Abortion is not illegal in Northern Ireland and can be carried out on the NHS at any stage in a pregnancy if the strict laws regarding the threat to the woman are met.

Marie Stopes clinics in England are regulated the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority, but that isn't the case in Northern Ireland - prompting the Justice Committee to look closely at just how the Belfast branch will be regulated.

Representatives from Marie Stopes have said they will co-operate with the Stormont inquiry.

© UTV News
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