LONDON - The opening of Northern Ireland's first private abortion clinic Thursday in Belfast drew hundreds of noisy demonstrators, who hoisted placards with messages such as "Keep Ireland abortion-free."
The clinic, operated by Marie Stopes International, will offer sexual health and family planning advice and, in certain cases, treatment with nonsurgical abortion and follow-up counseling.
"We understand the culture here in Northern Ireland; we don't want to change the culture … and have abortion on demand. What this is about is offering choice," Tracey McNeill, vice president of Marie Stopes, said in a television broadcast.
Religious, secular and political figures were among the protesters from Northern Ireland, which is a province of Britain, and the Irish Republic to the south, where abortions are not permitted. According to news reports, members of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches of Northern Ireland sang hymns and prayed aloud alongside lobbying groups led by the Precious Life movement.
Written protests have come from legal and parliamentary ranks: John Larkin, Northern Ireland's attorney general, has asked Northern Ireland's Justice Committee to investigate the legal grounds on which the clinic is operating, and Health Minister Edwin Poots told the legislature Monday that he had asked the medical officer, Justice Ministry and the police to look at the legality of the clinic's activities, according to the Belfast Telegraph.
Though abortion is legal in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of Britain, it is permitted only when the mother's health is at severe risk.
Clinic officials, who said they would strictly follow the law, described the facility as answering a longtime call for family planning for the women of Northern Ireland.
"For the first time, the people of Northern Ireland can visit a single health center for information, advice and help with contraception, HIV and sexually transmitted infections and - when the legal requirements are met - early medical abortion," a statement on the organization's website says. "Anyone coming to us can be assured that we are fully respective of their privacy and our dedicated healthcare team will provide them with confidential, sensitive and nonjudgmental care."
About 1,000 Northern Irish women a year reportedly travel to England for abortions rather than face the grueling and often unsuccessful battle to undergo the procedure legally in Northern Ireland.
"For women in Northern Ireland, abortion is a fact of life and they are going to do whatever they can to get them if they want them," Mara Clarke, leader of the Abortion Support Network, told Sky News.
Women who come to her group for help are often "horrifically desperate," she said. "A girl two weeks ago was going to ask her rapist for help with the money to pay for the procedure and the travel."
Bernadette Smyth, founder of Precious Life, countered that women in Northern Ireland are not dying because they can't have abortions.
"We don't want the lives of unborn children to be taken because of a crisis. Let's provide better healthcare, let's provide better resources for those women in crisis pregnancies."
Before the clinic's opening, news reports said Northern Ireland police had asked that photographers refrain from taking pictures of those entering the facility, in keeping with the right to privacy under European human rights law.
Stobart is a news assistant in The Times' London bureau.