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Exclusive: Suspended doctor is trustee of Belfast anti-abortion charity

Stanton Healthcare, accused of spreading anti-abortion misinformation, has a suspended anti-vax GP as a trustee

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Darcey Edkins
3 August 2022, 8.24am

A doctor suspended over COVID misinformation is a trustee at a Belfast 'anti-abortion' charity

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Inge Snip for openDemocracy. All rights reserved

A charity accused of spreading disinformation about pregnancy and abortion in Northern Ireland has a GP who was suspended for spreading COVID misinformation listed as a trustee, openDemocracy can reveal.

Anne McCloskey, a doctor from Derry, was handed an 18-month suspension in September, following complaints about comments she made about the COVID-19 vaccination programme.

In a video posted to social media, McCloskey claimed there was insufficient evidence that it was safe for young people to be vaccinated and described the vaccines as “malevolent”.

The Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service issued the temporary suspension, which bans McCloskey from practising medicine in the UK while the General Medical Council investigates.

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But according to the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland, McCloskey is still a trustee for Stanton Healthcare Belfast, which pro-choice groups have described as an ‘anti-abortion’ crisis pregnancy centre.

‘Crisis pregnancy centre’ is a term used to describe public-facing operations run by organisations whose primary goal is to dissuade pregnant people from accessing abortion care.

An openDemocracy investigation in 2020 found a global network of crisis pregnancy centres linked to two US Christian Right groups – Heartbeat International and Human Life International.

‘Intimidation and harassment’

Stanton Healthcare Belfast was set up in 2014 by American evangelical organisation Stanton International, which is set to expand its UK outreach with another branch, Stanton Healthcare East of Scotland, due to open in Edinburgh.

It remains unclear what responsibilities McCloskey has at the charity, although a year before she was suspended, the Belfast Newsletter reported that she was acting as a ‘medical adviser’. There is no law against a suspended GP being a trustee.

Abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland in 2019. But with the government at Stormont yet to commission full services, access to abortion services remains limited and varies across Northern Ireland’s five health and social care trusts.

They showed me pictures of dead babies and harassed me into feeling pressured to reverse my decision to have an abortion

An online review of Stanton Healthcare Belfast

Although Stanton Healthcare Belfast does not list abortion services as an option on its website, the charity appears as one of the first search results when you Google ‘abortion Belfast’.

Online reviews contain testimonies from women who claim to have gone to the clinic in search of abortion services, and instead faced intimidation and harassment from so-called ‘pregnancy advisers’.

One user wrote: “Do not trust this ‘healthcare’ facility and, no matter what, do not give your personal information to them. They do not provide abortions and do not give unbiased support.”

Another said: “They showed me pictures of dead babies and harassed me into feeling pressured to reverse my decision to have an abortion. They claimed that I was killing someone and judged me.”

In a blog post published by anti-abortion group Both Lives Matter, McCloskey, who is also a former councillor for the socially conservative Aontú political party, said she is “proud to be pro-life”.

She added that her aim is to “defend the right to life of the unborn child” across the island of Ireland.

‘Highly distressing’

Stanton Healthcare Belfast is publicly supported by Precious Life, which claims to be the largest ‘pro-life’ group in Northern Ireland.

Precious Life’s founder, Bernadette Smyth, regularly films anti-abortion videos outside Belfast’s abortion centre. In the videos, which are posted to social media, Smyth encourages people to volunteer at Stanton Healthcare Belfast, saying: “Let’s save little babies’ lives from the horror of abortion.”

In October 2020, McCloskey appeared at an event organised by Precious Life, where she stated that abortion can “never be regarded as healthcare” and said she will continue campaigning to overturn the “unjust, inhuman and anti-human laws”.

McCloskey is listed alongside two other trustees at the charity, Rita Brennan and Anne O’Hare. Both have links with the Precious Life organisation and have written blog posts in support of the wider anti-abortion movement in Ireland.

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Emma Campbell is an activist with Alliance for Choice (AfC), which campaigns for free, safe and legal abortions across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

She says AfC has “many concerns” about the “ease with which rogue pregnancy centres attract those in need of abortion care” without any “clear signposting as to their anti-abortion stance”.

“It is highly misleading and distressing for the people that contact us after their experiences with Stanton, who they trusted as legitimate abortion providers,” Campbell told openDemocracy.

Stanton Healthcare Belfast says it operates in accordance with all applicable laws and that clients receive “medically accurate information about options in a confidential and professional setting”.

openDemocracy has approached McCloskey, Stanton Healthcare Belfast and Precious Life for comment.

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