October 18, 2012; Source: StarTribune (Associated Press)
The first abortion clinic on the island of Ireland opened on Thursday in downtown Belfast, and faced organized protests from both Catholic and Protestant activists. In addition, Catholic and Protestant politicians were united in calls to investigate the new facility. The Marie Stopes Family Planning Center offers the abortion pill to women less than nine weeks pregnant but only in exceptional circumstances. Laws in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland require that women must be determined to be at risk of death or long-term health damage from a pregnancy before they may be eligible for the abortion pill. Marie Stopes International is a British charity that operates clinics in more than 40 countries.
According to the Associated Press, “Abortion is one of few issues that unites Northern Ireland, a predominantly Protestant corner of the United Kingdom, and the mostly Catholic Republic of Ireland. Both jurisdictions keep abortion outlawed except in cases where doctors deem the woman’s life at risk from continued pregnancy.” The AP also reports that, inside the clinic on its opening day, doctors and counselors dealt with several women in crisis pregnancies and reported being deluged with calls from women, including Republic of Ireland residents, seeking appointments. Wary of abortion rights gaining a foothold in Northern Ireland, protesters want the clinic shut down. The Roman Catholic Church has begun an initiative to pressure the Irish government to revisit and bolster its abortion ban.
Most Irish women in need of abortion travel to Britain, where it has been legal since 1967. It’s estimated that 1,000 women from Northern Ireland and 4,000 women from the Irish Republic travel to the U.K. each year for abortions. Officials from Marie Stopes International told the AP that they expect to provide very few abortions in Northern Ireland due to the heavy legal restrictions, but that Ireland needs a safe place, free of any social stigma, where women can go in the midst of a crisis pregnancy. “Mostly what we’ll be doing is offering advice. Many of the people we see we won’t be able to treat, because of the legal framework,” according to Marie Stopes Vice President Tracey McNeill.
The organization’s press release states that a wide range of sexual and reproductive services are also available from the center, including short- and long-term contraceptive options, emergency contraception, STD testing and treatment, and HIV testing. The release goes on to state that the organization is dedicated to meeting the family planning and sexual health needs of the community—while also working within the law of Northern Ireland. It sounds to us like those two objectives may be mutually exclusive in some cases, though. –Kathleen Hughes