Pro-life campaigners in Northern Ireland have vowed to prevent the opening of the first private abortion clinic in Ulster.
The Marie Stopes private abortion clinic is scheduled to open next week in Belfast. (Named after a famous British women’s rights activist, Marie Stopes International is a global nonprofit family planning and reproductive health care provider).
Although a part of the United Kingdom (which provides for safe, legal abortions), laws regarding reproduction rights are quite different in Northern Ireland. At present, abortions are allowed only if physicians determine that the mother’s life is in danger or there exists a grave long-term threat to her physical or mental health.
Figures from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety indicate that only 123 terminations were carried out in Northern Ireland between 2008 and 2011.
Marie Stopes has assured that it will carry out abortions in accordance with local laws – that is, procedures will be undertaken up to nine weeks gestation. (In England, Wales and Scotland, abortions are generally allowed up to 24 weeks of pregnancy.)
However, the Belfast clinic will also be available to women from the Republic of Ireland (where abortion is essentially illegal).
In previous years, thousands of women in Ulster have journeyed across the waters to England, Wales or Scotland to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
Abortion Rights, the British pro-choice campaign group, estimated that since 1967, when abortion was legalized in England, at least 50,000 women (perhaps as many as 70,000) from Northern Ireland have crossed the Irish Sea to terminate pregnancies. In 2011 alone, over 1,000 Ulster women made the trip.
(The number of illegal “back-street” abortions that have taken place within Northern Ireland itself is unknown.)
A young woman from Londonderry wrote to BBC to describe her experience in getting an abortion: “I traveled to Scotland to terminate my first and so far only pregnancy in 2006. I was 26. My pregnancy was terminated at 11 weeks. I am still angry that despite living in the UK, I did not have the same access to a termination as women in Scotland, Wales or England.”
She added: “An already upsetting and difficult situation was made so much harder, so much more traumatic, by having to make travel arrangements and lie to friends and colleagues about my ‘trip to Scotland.’ I find it immensely sad that the issue of abortion is still too taboo for many women to feel able to speak up about their experiences.”
Ahead of the planned opening of the Belfast clinic, both sides of the abortion debate are preparing for a long battle.
Darinka Aleksic, co-ordinator of the Abortion Rights Campaign of Britain, hailed the opening of the new clinic.
"This is a groundbreaking move from Marie Stopes which should be welcomed by all those who believe that women in Northern Ireland have a right to excellent sexual and reproductive health services,” she said in a statement.
“Women in Northern Ireland are UK taxpayers, yet they are treated like second-class citizens when it comes to abortion. Having to travel to the mainland or further abroad to access safe, legal abortion exacts a huge financial and emotional cost”.
She cautioned, however, that the opening of the Belfast center “will not solve all these problems and the fight for Northern Irish women to have the same rights as women in England, Scotland and Wales has a long way to go. But this is a real step forward."
Abortion opponents are livid over the planned opening of the clinic -- where abortions will cost £450 ($721) each.
"I am absolutely outraged,” said Bernadette Smith, from the Precious Life group, according to the Belfast Telegraph newspaper.
“An organization which is making profits from the death of unborn children is not welcome in Northern Ireland. There will be an outcry from the people, from government and from the churches."
Smith further raged that there is “no demand” for Marie Stopes in Northern Ireland, alleging that the number of women seeking an abortion has been coming down.
“The reduction in the number of women traveling to England has fallen by 36 percent over the last 15 years since the foundation of Precious Life,” she stated.
Similarly, Jim Allister, a hard-line Unionist and member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, spoke out against the clinic.
"If they are going to operate within the parameters of the law, and do so accurately, why would anyone go to them when they can have that service, if they need it, under the law and have it free under the National Health Service?" he said, according to BBC.
Allister added that pro-choice advocates do not respect the rights of the unborn child “who has no choice, in their view, and who should be put to death, because that's what abortion is."