Ella Glover 15th July 2020
On the surface, Stanton Healthcare Belfast looks like any other compassionate, pro-choice organisation. The American founded company, which operates in Idaho, California and Belfast, claims to be passionate about “empowering women to make informed decisions” based on “accurate information”. It only takes a quick Google search, however, to discover articles describing the organisation as “anti-abortion”.
A 2018 investigation by The Times found that the clinic was pedalling lies fuelling an anti-choice agenda. A reporter, who went undercover as five-weeks pregnant, was told that termination was likely to result in repercussions including infertility, breast cancer and depression – all three of which were debunked by Britain’s top gynaecologist, Lesley Regan. Despite this, Stanton Health Belfast appears at the top of the search results for “Abortion clinic Northern Ireland” and dominates the results for “Abortion provider Belfast”.
It’s no wonder, then, that many people mistakenly approach Stanton Healthcare to access abortion services locally, instead of having to travel to England, Wales or Scotland, as was the case until March this year. Naomi Connor of Alliance for Choice, a pro-choice organisation set up in 1996 to campaign for free, safe and legal abortion access in Northern Ireland, paints a picture of the problem those looking to access abortion are facing.
According to Naomi, a number of women have contacted Alliance for Choice after going to Stanton Healthcare, which didn’t point out it did not provide abortion healthcare, instead providing something “much, much different”. Naomi recalled one particular case where one woman had presumed that the centre would have provided the abortion.
Through “a series of call backs… over a bank holiday period and telling her that she would have to wait two weeks to get a scan,” which they said she would have needed prior to getting the abortion, Stanton Healthcare Belfast delayed this woman’s access to a safe and legal abortion.
The situation in Northern Ireland right now is, as Naomi put it, “precarious”. Abortion was made legal in Northern Ireland in October 2019, followed by a consultation period in which a regulatory framework was drawn up. This framework was expected to be put in place by 31st March 2020. Subsequently, unconditional terminations would be allowed up to 12 weeks, with longer time limits when a person’s mental or physical health, or life, is at risk.
The problem is, the Department of Health, have made no attempt to commission fully funded, permanent abortion healthcare services. Equally, there is no information out there for those seeking abortion on how they can access it. Because of this – and the penalties for medical professionals who act outside of the guidelines – “healthcare professionals are confused and frustrated” while those seeking abortion are falling into “gaps in provision”.
Now, the only “semi-clear pathway” to abortion in Northern Ireland is early medical abortion – the pill – which is available until nine weeks and six days. By the time the woman who was delayed by Stanton Healthcare realised something wasn’t right and found a genuine abortion provider, she was two days too late. And, because of the criminal sanctions proposed by the framework, the healthcare workers, who genuinely wanted to help, were sadly forced to refuse.
Rogue Crisis Pregnancy Centres (RCPCs) are not just common in Northern Ireland and Stanton Healthcare is not the only one. In 2014, Education for Choice released a report based on research involving mystery shopping at 33 CPCs in the United Kingdom. The majority of which were “found to be giving misleading information on the mental and physical health outcomes of abortion, and/or using inappropriate language and emotional manipulation when it came to discussing pregnancy options”. Two of the centres offered ultrasound scans and their promotional materials made it clear that scans are carried out with the sole intention of persuading people not to have abortions.
Despite their claims to operate in accordance with the law, Alliance for Choice is concerned that the personnel operating Stanton Health’s ultrasound scanner are not regulated. However, Naomi states: “[The government is] very quick to say that doctors and medical professionals that operate outside the guidelines will be prosecuted but they’re not when it comes to anti-choice [organisations]. That isn’t called out as quickly,” leaving even more gaps for RCPCs like Stanton Healthcare Belfast to set up shop.
The consequences of the government failing to educate both the public and healthcare workers on abortion policy are grave. “If you’re a pregnant person requiring abortion in Northern Ireland, and you’re not involved in abortion politics, and you’re not aware of the status quo, you Google ‘abortion clinic Northern Ireland’, and very high in that search is Stanton Healthcare Belfast,” Naomi tells The Overtake.
The Sunday Telegraph also found there were over 50 CPCs that appeared as abortion clinics in the USA. Following this, a surge of reporting on the issue of CPCs appearing high up in Google search results for ‘abortion’ prompted Google to solve the problem.
In 2019, The Guardian reported that, “[Google] said that advertisers in the US, UK, and Ireland who ran abortion-related ads had to disclose to Google whether they did or did not provide termination services, and that the information would be tagged on to advertisements when users searched under ‘keywords related to getting an abortion’.
“The tags, which appear in small grey print under the advertisement, say ‘Does not provide abortion’ or ‘Provides abortion’”.
However, over a year later, Stanton Healthcare are still appearing at the top of Google’s suggestions – with no indication of whether they do or do not offer abortion services – despite the numerous one-star reviews that have appeared in the last two weeks, bringing the centre’s rating down from five stars to two.
Mara Clarke, of Abortion Support Network, believes that the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland will probably mean “the number of these Rogue Crisis Pregnancy Centres will have gone up”. And it’s no doubt that more still will crop up – given the Northern Irish Minister of Health Robin Swann’s consistent refusal to commission services.
In order to combat the lack of information provided by the Department of Health, Alliance for Choice is offering an “abortion pill workshop”, which medical professionals are attending to gain an understanding about how to help those seeking abortion right now. That this even has to be offered is evidence of the huge failings of the Department of Health. Especially since, as Naomi points out, if you search for any other healthcare provision in Northern Ireland, information provided by the Department of Health will appear.
It’s important to realise that the above cases are not anomalies. These stories are all too common and by no means is this issue individual to Northern Ireland. The problem of RCPCs is global. Yet, when it comes to Northern Ireland, “by not providing information, by not providing proper services, by not providing pathways,” the Department of Health are creating circumstances in which people will end up at the doors of RCPCs, Naomi says.
And “those rogue agencies may well exploit them in particular circumstances because they don’t offer abortion healthcare; they don’t offer choice…and they certainly don’t make it clear that that is the case”.
Stanton Healthcare Belfast declined to comment.
Ella Glover 15th July 2020