Protests at new Belfast abortion clinic

 

THE FIRST private clinic providing abortion on the island of Ireland opened at lunchtime yesterday in Belfast. About 300 people protested peacefully outside the high-rise building on Great Victoria Street where the Marie Stopes International clinic is based.

The clinic opened as the North’s Attorney General, John Larkin, wrote to the Northern Assembly’s justice committee inviting members to investigate how the clinic would meet the law in Northern Ireland.

Abortions can only be carried out in the North where the mother’s life is at risk or where there are serious mental and health risks to the woman from continuing the pregnancy.

The committee discussed the issue at Stormont yesterday afternoon, after which members asked representatives from Marie Stopes to appear before the committee. The request was made “because of the level of interest and concern about the services it states it will be providing in Belfast”, said committee chairman Paul Givan.

“It is appropriate for this committee to assure itself, and the public, that this private clinic will scrupulously follow the law,” added the DUP Assembly member.

In his letter Mr Larkin said that while he could not intervene in his official capacity, in his non-statutory role as guardian of the law he could become engaged. He said he would be happy to offer every possible assistance, including acting as counsel to the committee and questioning witnesses on its behalf.

Marie Stopes International’s UK and Europe director Tracey McNeill reiterated that the clinic would observe the law on abortion in Northern Ireland. “We are clear about the law here. The team here are all from Northern Ireland – we understand the culture here. We don’t want to change the culture here and have abortion on demand. This is about offering choice,” she said.

Anti-abortion protesters began arriving outside the building where the clinic is located from before 10am. There was an initial group of about 50 from organisations such as Precious Life, Life and UK Life which grew to about 200 by noon. Later numbers rose to around 300.

Some carried placards with statements such as “Keep Ireland Abortion Free”, “Abortion – We Can Live Without It” and “Ulster Says No to Abortion”. Some also carried posters with pictures of aborted foetuses. Prayers were also said and hymns sung.

Bernadette Smyth, head of Precious Life, accused Marie Stopes of having an agenda to “break the law to change the law” so that the British 1967 Abortion Act could be introduced to Northern Ireland.

Ms Smyth added that there was great opposition to abortion in Northern Ireland, including at political level.

There was also a much smaller counter demonstration in favour of the clinic. The Belfast director of the clinic, Dawn Purvis, former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, said the level of support for the clinic was “truly inspiring”.