AS PROTESTS go in Northern Ireland, the demonstration by 300 people on Thursday against the new Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast was distinctly underwhelming. Notably so when the issue of abortion – opposition to it under almost all circumstances – unites the mainstream parties as no other appears to. The turnout reflects the reality found in polls – voters are considerably less judgmental than the parties, broadly supporting women’s right to abortion when they are at risk.
While the parties have not opposed the opening of a legal clinic, all rushed out statements reiterating their opposition to abortion and lined up to demand that the authorities exercise particular vigilance to ensure that the clinic complies with the law. Its director is to be grilled before an Assembly meeting. (Sinn Féin had it both ways – a spokeman insisted “Sinn Féin is not in favour of abortion . . . [but] believes where a woman’s life or mental health is at risk . . . that the final decision rests with the woman” – presumably to have an abortion – while Martin McGuinness also berated clinic director Dawn Purvis for working for the private sector).
The demand for close state scrutiny of the work of the group, a reputable organisation with a long international reputation for its work on women’s health, would be unobjectionable were such demands ever made of others establishing in the North for whatever purpose. The real agenda is clear – if they can’t shut the clinic down in advance, politicians will make it as difficult as possible to operate.
And all the while not explaining to women in need of legal abortions where they can get them. Last year only some 43 legal abortions were performed in the North while the Family Planning Association referred 40 women a week from there to British clinics for a private abortion. Like their Southern counterparts, the boat to Britain has been the only real option.
Marie Stopes International’s UK and Europe director Tracey McNeill insists the clinic will observe the law. “We are clear about the law here. . . we understand the culture here. We don’t want to change the culture here and have abortion on demand,” she insists. The law allows abortion in the North where the mother’s life is at risk or where there is a long-term or permanent risk to her physical or mental health. It is a slightly more permissive situation than the Republic where the mother’s life, rather than just health, must be shown to be threatened. But the South is soon likely to face the same challenge. Will politicians behave differently?