Management from Northern Ireland's first private abortion clinic will be summoned to Stormont to explain how they are complying with the criminal law, it has been revealed.
DUP MLA Paul Givan, chairman of the justice committee, has said he would like to quiz Marie Stopes International, which opened its new centre amid protests in Belfast. An invitation to address the justice committee was issued after Northern Ireland's Attorney General called for an investigation into the opening of the new clinic.
Speaking during justice committee hearing, SDLP MLA Alban Maginness said: "What worries me in relation to Marie Stopes is that this clinic is outside the National Health Service. It does not appear to be regulated.
"Given the contentious nature of their support for abortion it is necessary that the law is fully complied with and that we are assured by Marie Stopes. I think this is an important task for this committee and I hope that Marie Stopes organisation will respond positively to any invitation so then we can inquire from them what their position is within the law."
A spokesman for John Larkin's office confirmed that he had sent a letter to the justice committee. In it, the Attorney General said he was not allowed to intervene in an official capacity but could offer advice, act as counsel and interview witnesses in a non-statutory role as guardian of the rule of law.
DUP MLA Jim Wells, who also sits on the Stormont health committee, said the issue of abortion had now become a legal question. He said: "There is a huge public interest on this subject. It is only appropriate to examine it. This has become a legal issue rather than a health issue. The public expect us to do something."
In Northern Ireland abortion is not illegal but is very tightly controlled. The procedure is only permitted if the life or mental health of the mother is at serious risk. The new Marie Stopes facility will offer terminations up to nine weeks' gestation, each costing £450.
About 350 anti-abortion activists turned up to protest outside centre on Belfast's Great Victoria Street. Bernadette Smyth, from the Precious Life lobby group which organised the rally, said: "There is no will for Marie Stopes to be here, they are not welcome here. The people here want to make a stand. Unborn children here are precious and there is no will for abortion to be legalised here from the people or politicians. It's clear that unborn children are protected here."
There were some heated verbal exchanges between anti-abortionists and a small contingent of pro choice campaigners who had turned up to show their support for Marie Stopes. Jenny McEneaney, 23, from Belfast said: "We believe this is a progressive step for Northern Ireland. We are not anti life, we are pro choice that the women in Northern Ireland who have voted with their feet in going to London at huge expense will now have access to a service not otherwise available."
Meanwhile, Marie Stopes has insisted its new centre, which is headed by former Progressive Unionist Party MLA Dawn Purvis, will operate within the current legal framework, providing medical not surgical terminations up to nine weeks' gestation with aftercare including counselling. Tracey McNeill, vice president and director of Marie Stopes UK and Europe, said the organisation would not break the law.