Marie Stopes Center: Ireland’s first abortion clinic triggers protests on day one


More than 200 protesters opposed to abortion under any circumstances gathered outside Belfast Central Clinic hours before it opens today, holding up signs reading ‘Keep Ireland Abortion Free’

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BELFAST – The first abortion clinic on the whole island of Ireland opened in Belfast on Thursday, sparking protests from conservatives on the Catholic and Protestant sides of Northern Ireland.

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The Marie Stopes Center plans to offer the abortion pill to women who are less than nine weeks pregnant, but only if doctors determine they are at risk of dying or harming their long-term health due to their pregnancy.

This is the law in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where abortion is otherwise illegal.

But more than 200 protesters opposing abortion under all circumstances gathered outside Belfast Central Clinic hours before it opened on Thursday, holding up signs reading ‘Keep Ireland Abortion Free’.

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And Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin has written to lawmakers, who are widely opposed to abortion, offering to help if they investigate the clinic’s operations. Larkin said he could only order the clinic to close if there was evidence of “serious criminal conduct” in it.

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Protesters demanded that the clinic be closed anyway, lest it become a beachhead to expand abortion rights in Northern Ireland, the only corner of the UK that has not legalized l abortion on demand.

“We are in 2012. Women’s health is not in danger. Women don’t die because they can’t have an abortion, ”said Bernadette Smyth, Protestant leader of a Belfast anti-abortion group called Precious Life.

“For Marie Stopes, this is just the first step,” said Liam Gibson of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, a pressure group predominantly supported by Catholics.

He called on Belfast Police to arrest doctors and clinic directors if they provide women with information about abortion services in neighboring Britain, where abortions have been legal since 1967. About 4,000 women in the Republic of Ireland and 1,000 from Northern Ireland travel there each year to have an abortion. .

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REUTERS / Cathal McNaughton
REUTERS / Cathal McNaughton

Marie Stopes officials said they expected to provide relatively few abortions in Northern Ireland given heavy legal restrictions.

But they said Belfast, and all of Ireland, needed a non-judgmental and threat-free place where women in crisis in pregnancy could seek advice. They said their office is already receiving calls from women in the Republic of Ireland, where it is illegal to receive abortion pill shipments in the mail.

“Most of the time we will be offering advice. A lot of people we see won’t be able to treat, due to the legal framework, ”said Tracey McNeill, vice president of Marie Stopes, a UK family planning charity that already runs such clinics in more than 40 country.

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McNeill said she had no problem with gathering protesters as long as they didn’t threaten customers. “It is important that people express their point of view in a democracy,” she said.

Police have erected crowd control barriers outside the clinic on Great Victoria Street, one of Belfast’s widest boulevards, to prevent protesters from blocking the entrance or the sidewalk. Directors of the clinic had tried to keep her location a secret, but that information was leaked last week.

AP Photo / Peter Morrison
AP Photo / Peter Morrison

The Roman Catholic Church, the largest church in Ireland’s two regions, this week launched a month-long campaign to pressure the Irish government to tighten its constitutional ban on abortion. He denounced the opening of the Belfast clinic but refrained from calling for demonstrations.

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“We are in the midst of a struggle for the soul of Northern Ireland,” said Bishop Donal McKeown, the oldest Catholic in Belfast, who did not attend the protest. He said the directors of Marie Stopes were seeking to “promote the acceptability of abortion”.

Elsewhere in Northern Ireland, a group of teenagers from a Catholic high school announced they would hold a daily lunchtime prayer for the clinic to close.

Sheila Fullerton, a teacher at St. Mary’s Grammar School in the town of Magherafelt, said about 40 boys and girls aged 16 and 17 approached her asking her to organize the protest. “They have a strong sense of this something that they have to do,” she said.

Irish abortion rights groups have welcomed the opening of the clinic, but said they will not hold counter-protests as this will only encourage potential violence and intimidation of women pregnant outside the clinic.

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About 50 women a year undergo abortions in hospitals in Northern Ireland after doctors believe their pregnancy poses sufficient risk to their health.

PETER MUHLY / AFP / Getty Images
PETER MUHLY / AFP / Getty Images

Goretti Horgan, head of a Belfast-based group called Alliance for Choice, said that while the clinic would technically offer no increased access to abortion, it would encourage women to seek the abortion pill who previously had to seek services funded by the state through their local doctor.

Horgan said local doctors themselves may be opposed to abortion or fear being targeted by protesters or lawsuits. She said that meant women with life-threatening illnesses often found themselves traveling to Britain as a less difficult option.

“The main need of the clinic is for women who are sick or very distressed and who have the right to a legal abortion here. For these women, I think it’s awful that they put these women on a plane, with their medical notes under their arms. It’s outrageous, ”she said.

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Like almost all politicians in Northern Ireland, Health Minister Edwin Poots says he doesn’t want the Belfast clinic but can function as long as it obeys all applicable laws.

“If they break the law, they will be prosecuted,” he told lawmakers.

The clinic’s legal inability to offer an abortion option to women who are more than 9 weeks pregnant means that those requesting an abortion because the fetus has been diagnosed with life-threatening abnormalities still have to travel to Britain.

Ruth Bowie, spokesperson for an Irish group called Terminations for Medical Reasons, said doctors can only detect such problems after the fetus is at least 12 weeks old.

Bowie said abortion laws in Northern Ireland mean the clinic “will be of no help to women in the north and south who are facing the trauma and upheaval of fatal fetal abnormalities. Women and men in this situation continue to be forced to move away from family, friends and home at the worst time of their lives.

PETER MUHLY / AFP / Getty Images
PETER MUHLY / AFP / Getty Images

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