Protesters say Rosary in rain as first private abortion clinic opens
WITH prayers and placards, up to 350 protesters gathered in Belfast to mark the opening of the first private abortion clinic on the island of Ireland.
The group included around 50 pro-life campaigners from the Republic, who came out vigorously against the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast's Great Victoria Street.
There was a strong police presence at the doors of the centre, which is offering medical abortions to women up to nine weeks pregnant -- in cases where the life of the woman, or her long-term mental or physical health, is deemed to be at risk -- for £450 (€554).
Shortly after the doors were unlocked yesterday morning, pro-life supporters were claiming a victory, with the ann-ouncement that the North's Attorney General had called for an investigation into the opening of the clinic.
There were whoops and cheers as Bernadette Smyth from the Precious Life lobby group -- which had organised the rally -- told the crowd that Marie Stopes' days in Northern Ireland "are numbered" following the news that John Larkin, chief legal adviser to the Stormont Executive, had written to the justice committee asking it to look into the practices of the new facility.
Ms Smyth said her group was still looking into an injunction ordering the cessation of the clinic's operations. In the meantime, the protesters "will have a presence as long as Marie Stopes is here", she said.
She added that they would not heckle any woman who tried to enter the clinic -- which is on the eighth floor of a 10-storey building in Belfast city centre -- but instead would "offer advice" and hand out pamphlets.
Mother-of-four Aoife de Clar from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, had come with her children and husband after leaving home at 6.30am.
"We couldn't let this opening go unnoticed," she said, adding that she had tried to explain to her children what was happening.
"I told them there were bad doctors who kill people but that we have good doctors working in hospitals," she said.
Reciting decades of the Rosary and singing hymns, the protesters stood their ground despite spells of torrential rain.
They held placards, some showing graphic images of aborted foetuses.
One woman displayed a set of rosary beads -- each containing a life-size image of a foetus at one week old. "Aren't they beautiful? A real inspiration," she said.
Twenty-nine protesters arrived on a coach from Midleton, Co Cork. Gesturing towards the handful of pro-choice protesters, Marguerite Hurst said: "They don't know what they are advocating. It's pure ignorance."
Mother-of-four Maria Ashe, from Drogheda, Co Louth, who travelled to Belfast with her mother and three other women, said: "I wouldn't be religious like Mam, but I do disagree with abortion."
One woman passing by said the group showed that times had greatly changed in Belfast.
"It's certainly less angry now -- this is a more moderate group than those who used to protest against abortion," she said.
But not all the protesters were opposed to the clinic. Pro-choice activist Jenny McAneaney from Belfast hailed the opening of the clinic as a "progressive step" for Northern Ireland.
Tracey McNeill, vice-president and director of Marie Stopes UK and Europe, said the organisation would be operating strictly within the law.
"We don't want to change the culture here and have abortion on demand. This is about offering choice," she said. "We knew this was never going to be easy."
She added that the reason they had opened the clinic was because they are aware of the need for the services it offers.
"What we are providing is family planning, contraception and counselling," she said.
"The majority of women that come to us, we won't be able to treat because of the legal framework. We are really clear about that. But if we can provide a space in which they can make their own decisions, then the team will have done a good job."
It is estimated that around 50-60 medical abortions a year are already carried out in hospitals in Northern Ireland.