First private abortion clinic to open in Northern Ireland

DUBLIN, Oct 11 (Reuters) - The first private clinic offering abortions will open in Northern Ireland next week, the Marie Stopes charity said on Thursday, making access to abortion much easier for women in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The clinic will offer abortions to women who are as much as 9 weeks pregnant, in line with laws that allow abortion if the mother's life is at immediate risk or if there is a long-term or permanent risk to her health, the charity said in a statement.

More than 1,000 women travelled to England and Wales last year for an abortion from Northern Ireland and at least 4,000 from the Republic of Ireland, according to statistics from the UK's Department of Health. Women from the Republic do not have access to state-funded abortions available in Northern Ireland.

England, Wales and Scotland have a 24-week gestation limit for abortion and have fewer conditions for women seeking to terminate pregnancies.

Dawn Purvis, programme director with Maries Stopes Northern Ireland, said Northern Ireland's regulatory body, the RQIA, had been consulted on the charity's plans and that there were no plans to open a clinic in the Republic.

Anti-abortion campaigners described the clinic opening as a publicity stunt.

"This is an attempt by Marie Stopes to challenge the pro-life ethos and to try and circumvent the laws," said Niamh Ui Bhriain of the Dublin-based Life Institute.

The Irish coalition government is awaiting the recommendations of an expert panel formed to respond to EU demands for change in the abortion law and the panel's findings are due to be given to the Health Minister any day.

This has prompted a wave of anti-abortion campaigning in the past few months, which will be stepped up a gear over the next few weeks.

The abortion issue pitches conservatives in the Republic of Ireland, an EU member which has some of the world's most restrictive abortion laws, against a younger secular generation at a time when the church's grip on society is weakening.

(Reporting by Lorraine Turner; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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