The woman behind Ireland's first abortion clinic
LOOKING OUT OF the window of her new office, with its dramatic view of the Belfast skyline, Dawn Purvis says she never expected to be standing here. The former leader of the Progressive Unionist party is the director of the city’s soon-to-be-open Marie Stopes clinic, which will offer abortion services in Northern Ireland for the first time. After consultation, and if medically eligible, clients with pregnancies of less than nine weeks’ gestation will be able to have nonsurgical terminations.
It is quiet in this room high above the city, yet Purvis expects that, in certain quarters, reaction to the centre will be vehement. In the minds of some, Purvis has done the unthinkable. But she is calm and ready for whatever lies ahead.
“I am pro-choice. I understand that there are people who are anti-choice. It may be on religious grounds; they may have strongly held moral views,” she says. “But I don’t understand their reasons for not allowing a woman to make up her own mind about her own body, in consultation with her doctor. It is down to the individual woman. It is always her choice.”
Purvis has come a long way from her early days as a fledgling member of the Progressive Unionists, a small left-wing political grouping linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force. Encouraged by her mentors, David Ervine and the former UVF leader Gusty Spence, Purvis rose quickly through the ranks of the party.
In 2007, after Ervine’s sudden death, she was made leader of the PUP. But her leadership was constantly tested by the violent insubordination of UVF elements, and in 2010, when members of the paramilitary group shot dead Bobby Moffett, a former loyalist prisoner, in daylight on Shankill Road, she had had enough. Purvis resigned from the party, saying that she could not defend the indefensible and that the UVF were more trouble than they were worth.
She stood as an independent in the Assembly elections of April 2011 but was unable to keep her seat.
Setting herself up as an independent consultant, she began working for Marie Stopes International, the UK provider of sexual and reproductive healthcare services, with a view to opening a clinic in Northern Ireland.
“I started preparing the ground, making contacts, consulting with people such as the FPA [the Family Planning Association, a sexual health charity]. If you’re going to invest time and resources in a new area, you also need to be sure that there’s a proven need for those services. For that, you need to look only at the number of women from Northern Ireland who go to England for abortions every week.”
In August of this year Purvis took on a full-time role at the purpose-built Marie Stopes clinic, which offers contraceptive options, HIV testing, STI testing and treatment, and ultrasound scanning, as well as medical abortion to anyone over 16.
As for the legal side, Purvis is confident that the clinic and its services are viable within existing laws. The Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, places a legislative restriction on abortion in Northern Ireland. The 1945 Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Act, which allows the abortion of a child “capable of being born alive” only where the mother’s life would be otherwise at risk, is also applicable.
The FPA has long fought for clear guidance for health professionals on terminating pregnancy. Last month the high court granted the FPA permission to challenge the government’s alleged failure to issue new guidelines on abortion.
Given the context of opposition to abortion among religious campaigners and politicians in Northern Ireland, isn’t Purvis concerned about challenges to the clinic’s position?
“I think there will be a mixed reaction. There are those who have been waiting a long time for what we are offering. Others will not be so welcoming; that’s to be expected. But we have taken legal advice, and we will be operating within the current legal framework: when the risk to a woman’s life is determined to be a permanent, long-term and serious threat to her physical or mental wellbeing. So it’s difficult to see where such a challenge could come from. Besides, those who oppose us are not our focus. We want to concentrate on the men and women who need our services. They are our priority.”
Nobody will be persuaded to have an abortion that they are unsure about. “It’s about choice, every step of the way,” says Purvis. “The full range of options – adoption, continuation of the pregnancy, termination – will be discussed, as well as the personal circumstances of the woman, her state of health and available family support. In the end it’s a decision about a woman’s health that she should make in conjunction with her doctor. That’s what we’re providing here.”
The site for the clinic has been chosen with the needs of women in mind. “We have deliberately chosen a multiuse, multitenant building on a busy street, with lots of footfall and access to good transport routes,” says Purvis. “In the event of protests we will be taking measures to reassure our clients, working with the management company that owns our premises and with the PSNI. There will be an ongoing assessment of our security needs. For us that is paramount.”
Purvis’s route to her current role as director of Marie Stopes Northern Ireland may have been circuitous, but it’s not as unlikely as it may first appear. “I grew up in the place I still live, Donegall Pass [in south Belfast]. As a child I heard women whispering about girls who had got into trouble, and I wondered what they had done that was so awful,” she says.
“When I got involved in politics, for me being pro-choice was part of my psyche, my political make-up. David Ervine was absolutely pro-choice; it was party policy. I was glad when I was elected, because it gave women a voice.
“I draw strength and motivation from helping the women and men who will walk through the doors of this centre. No shame, no embarrassment, just somewhere they can come where they will be treated with sensitivity and respect, and where they won’t be judged. I’m proud of that.
“You need to be true to yourself, true to your beliefs,” says Purvis. “I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”