Published Thursday, 10 January 2013
The Marie Stopes Clinic opened in Belfast last October. (© UTV)
Representatives of Marie Stopes International, who run private sexual health and reproductive service clinics across the UK, told a Stormont committee it had voluntarily worked with the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) to establish a means by which its care provision could be assessed independently.
Tracey McNeill, the organisation's UK director, and other staff, including the Belfast clinic's director Dawn Purvis, were at Parliament Buildings in an effort to assure committee members that it was operating within the strict abortion law in Northern Ireland.
Despite repeated questioning from MLAs, Ms McNeill declined to reveal how many or even if any abortions had been carried out in the clinic since it opened last year, citing the importance of patient confidentiality.
However, the delegation from the clinic did reveal that abortions had been refused.
"The numbers of women we treat I think is largely irrelevant," insisted Ms McNeill.
"What's really important is the numbers we are treating are going to be very, very low.
"I think what is important and why we are here today is to answer questions about do we meet the legal criteria for those women that we do treat and we know it's going to be very, very small numbers because of the criteria."
The role of us today is to try and assure both yourselves and the public that we are categorically working within the law and we are working with those statutory authorities that we are required to.
Tracey McNeill, Marie Stopes UK director
The country's first private sexual health clinic opened in October amid protests, as some claim there is no demand for terminations in Northern Ireland.
The private healthcare operator has said it will provide medical abortions within Northern Ireland's current legal framework, which differs from other parts of the United Kingdom where abortion is legal under the 1967 Abortion Act.
In Northern Ireland terminations are only allowed if the pregnant woman is at immediate risk or if there is a long-term or permanent risk to her physical or mental health.
Ms Purvis told committee members that a factor in locating the centre on Great Victoria Street in Belfast was to make it accessible to clients travelling from the Republic of Ireland, where similar restrictions apply.
"The location of the centre was something that was paramount when I was looking at sites in Belfast because, yes, I was thinking of clients from all over the island coming to avail of our services and I wanted to assure there were good transport routes," she said.
Commenting on registering with the regulator, Ms McNeill said: "It has been, it always will be, without question, our goal to work with the RQIA in order to become regulated by that body to ensure that politicians and, importantly, the public can have confidence that our centre and our services provide the highest quality and standards of care within the law as it currently exists.
"And I am pleased to announce to this committee today that we have found a way forward with the RQIA and we have submitted an application for registration recently."
Some MLA's remained highly sceptical of the move, claiming the body would only assess standards and not whether abortions were being carried out within the legal criteria.
Ms McNeill replied: "They have a role in terms of ensuring that a healthcare facility operates in a professional and clinically approved way, that it has the proper governance and audit arrangements in place and that healthcare professionals employed are qualified and suitably trained to make those judgments about anybody's health."
© UTV News