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Ireland and abortion
  Ulster Pregnancy Advisory Association closes
Commentary from BPAS

Family planning staff in Northern Ireland are reviewing their security after attempts to burn down the office of a pregnancy counselling service. The homes of staff from the Ulster Pregnancy Advisory Association had earlier been the focus of protests from anti-abortion campaigners and now the service has decided to close. There are concerns that the tension will increase next month with the arrival of prominent anti-abortion activists from the USA. But the protests are having little effect on the numbers of women seeking advice over the termination of their pregnancies.

About 90 abortions are carried out in Northern Ireland each year. The province comes under different legislation from the rest of the UK as the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply. Doctors whose consent is needed are deeply divided over the issue and so up to 2,000 women a year travel elsewhere in the UK for help. The Ulster Pregnancy Advisory Association was one of two agencies in the province able to refer them for treatment, but it has been forced to close after vandalism and allegations of intimidation. The association is so alarmed by the recent arson attack that Audrey Simpson, of the Family Planning Association, has had to speak on its behalf. "I think they're devastated that this is happening," she said. "They feel that all they were trying to do was give women information. They weren't doing anything anything illegal, they weren't doing anything wrong, but some people tried to make that impossible for them to continue doing that."

Anti-abortion activists in Belfast - who operate under the name Precious Life - admit they have protested outside the homes of staff. Bernadette Smythe, a spokeswoman for the group, said: "There will never be any proof connecting Precious Life with any types of violence because we oppose violence in the womb and violence outside the womb." But this same group has now invited prominent anti-abortionists from the US to come to Belfast next month prompting fears among the remaining counselling services that tensions could increase. Extremist elements of the US anti-abortion lobby have been behind a number of killings of abortion doctors and, although Precious Life says its guests have not been linked to any violence, it says it will seek "inspiration" from them.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) says the number of Irish and Northern Irish women seeking abortions in Britain rose in 1998, despite the fact that protests have been increasing over the past two years. BPAS spokeswoman Ann Furedi said: "What these groups fail to appreciate is that there is a clear and growing expectation that women in the north and south of Ireland should have the same ability to plan their families as women elsewhere in the UK and Europe. "These groups make it more difficult and more gruelling for them to get advice in their own country, but their action also reinforces both their and abortion workers' determination." She thinks the growing militancy of anti-abortion groups is caused by fears that abortion legislation will be liberalised. However, she did not think the protesters would become as violent as their US counterparts. "There is not the degree of religious fundamentalism in Northern Ireland that underpins society in the US," she said.
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