Belfast's first abortion clinic reignites bitter divide
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The opening of the first private abortion clinic in Northern Ireland, set for October 18, has unleashed a flurry of campaigns on both sides of the abortion divide and exposed the murky status of anti-abortion laws in the region.
Over the past few years, a familiar drama has repeatedly unfolded almost every day on Shaftesbury Square in the heart of Belfast, capital of the British region of Northern Ireland.
Women - and men - trying to enter the Belfast offices of the Family Planning Association (FPA), a British sexual health charity, have been heckled and sometimes harassed by a raucous picket of anti-abortion activists wielding grisly photographs of apparently aborted foetuses.
The FPA motto is “Talking sense about sex”. But when it comes to abortion, sense often gives way to inflamed sensitivities in this largely self-governed region of the UK.
So, when Marie Stopes International, a London-based NGO, announced its plans last week to open Ireland's first abortion clinic on October 18, a backlash was widely expected.
The reactions came in fast and hard, dominating the airwaves, newspapers and new media forums inside and outside this territory of roughly 1.8 million inhabitants.
The issue went viral on social media sites such as Twitter, with supporters and opponents of the clinic directing followers to various online polls and petitions. Groups as diverse as “Catholics for Choice” and “IrelandProLife” provided links to sites such as a Belfast Telegraph poll, which at last count, had a close 53 percent opposing the clinic and 47 percent supporting it.
On Facebook, administrators of a page titled, “We Are Fully Against the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast” vainly attempted to keep the discourse polite.
Security fears and a not-so-secret location
Days before the planned opening of what they are careful to note is a sexual health - and not just an abortion - clinic, Marie Stopes International officials conceded that security was a concern.
“I would be reckless if I said I was not concerned,” said Tracey McNeill, vice-president and director of Marie Stopes UK and Europe, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “The safety of the men and women who come to us and our team members is an absolute priority. A few days ago, I had planned to contact the police, but in fact we were contacted by the police force in Northern Ireland and they came and checked the premises and assured us of security arrangements.”
Initially, Marie Stopes International kept the location of the new clinic secret. But word gets around in this city of about 200,000 inhabitants, and over the last few days, media teams have been stationing themselves outside the Victoria Street premises.
Despite the public outcry and the security concerns, Marie Stopes officials are determined to keep their message on target.
“Honestly, I’m not thinking of all the publicity and backlash,” said McNeill. “I’m focused on making sure we deliver first-class health services. I’m not a politician, I’m a healthcare professional.”
‘Making the journey’ for an expensive procedure
But in Northern Ireland, it’s hard to distance politics from an issue overseen by murky laws that are kept in place by politicians and lobby groups that claim to be attuned to public opinion.
Northern Ireland has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws. Although it’s a British territory, the UK’s 1967 Abortion Act legalising abortions was never extended to Northern Ireland. Abortion in Northern Ireland is still covered by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and sections of the 1945 Criminal Justice Act.
Terminations of pregnancy are only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life is deemed at immediate risk. Abortion is illegal in cases of rape, incest or abnormality. Under the current laws, women face life in prison for having an illegal abortion.
The strict rules see thousands of Northern Irish women travelling to England to access abortions in what it is euphemistically known as “making the journey”.
For decades, tens of thousands of women from Northern Ireland - as well as the Republic of Ireland, which has equally restrictive abortion laws – have “made the journey” to England.
But while Northern Irish women are British citizens, their abortions are not covered by the publicly funded National Health Service (NHS) under vaguely defined guidelines that are still under review, forcing them to pay an estimated 2,000 British pounds (around 2,500 euros) for the procedure.
“It’s a matter of equality and discrimination against women in Northern Ireland,” said Audrey Simpson, director of the FPA in Northern Ireland, which is backing the new Marie Stopes clinic.
Bridging the sectarian divide
But anti-abortion activists, such as Bernadette Smyth, founder and director of the Belfast-based Precious Life, maintain that, “there is no will to change the law in Northern Ireland. It’s a well known fact that it’s very different, very unique here. Even though Northern Ireland is part of the UK, we’re still Ireland in terms of our medical policies.”
Some pro-choice supporters dispute the claim that the majority of Northern Ireland’s residents are opposed to legalising abortion, citing a 2012 poll that found 59 percent of respondents supporting the legalisation of abortion in rape cases.
Both sides, however, concede that in a region deeply divided between Protestants and Catholics, abortion is the one issue that unites politicians on both sides of the religious divide.
After decades of sectarian strife - known as the Troubles – between the mainly Protestant Unionists and mainly Catholic Republicans, Northern Ireland finally saw the establishment of a power sharing government in 2007 under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday agreement. But the main political parties on both sides of the sectarian divide - the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) founded by the Rev. Ian Paisley, as well as the largely Catholic Sinn Fein – remain officially opposed to the legalisation of abortion.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Edwin Poots, a DUP member, questioned the legal position of the centre, warning Marie Stopes International to “observe the law in Northern Ireland”.
“It is a legal matter, not a health matter,” said Poots. “It will come to the attention of the Attorney General, and it will be for the Attorney General to take whatever actions he deems necessary. If they break the law, they will be prosecuted.”
Marie Stopes representatives maintain that the clinic complies with Northern Ireland’s laws. “We have been working in partnership with many organisations, including healthcare professions. We started working on this project two years ago and it’s taken us almost a year to understand the regulatory and legal environment,” said McNeill. “We are working within all relevant laws and guidelines.”
But Smyth, director of the anti-abortion group Precious Life, is not convinced. “Our legal team is investigating this. We also have a lobby campaign at the moment that is lobbying our local representatives and we’re very confident that our elected representatives will take care of this. We’re taking decisions moment by moment and all I can say is, watch this space.”
Whatever the outcome of the legal investigation, there’s little doubt the new clinic space on Belfast’s Victoria Street will indeed be closely watched – raising questions of how secure or comfortable many women in Northern Ireland may feel about accessing the controversial new clinic’s facilities.