In an item of news which has polarised the population of Northern Ireland, the charity Marie Stopes is set to open a sexual and reproductive health centre – the first clinic of its kind to offer private abortions in Ireland – in Belfast Thursday 18 October. While the clinic will offer a range of services, among them contraception, STI testing, treatment and ultrasound scanning, their stance on abortion has already generated much controversy ahead of the official opening.
Anti-abortion groups have protested what they perceive to be a relaxation in Northern Ireland’s notoriously stringent laws on the subject, yet in fact the opening of the clinic does not mark a legislative change on abortion. As was the case before, only those women who are deemed to meet certain medical criteria will be eligible to avail of the clinic’s services. Yet the event still marks a watershed moment in the public discussion of abortion – a topic which continues to divide opinion, and which is almost unanimously opposed by Northern Ireland’s church groups, as well as Stormont political parties.
Dawn Purvis, former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, will be taking on the role of Director at Marie Stopes Northern Ireland. In a statement released this week, she affirmed, “We believe this is great news for the people of Northern Ireland because we will be able to meet their family planning and sexual health needs in a way that has not been seen here before. We have a new, purpose built, centrally-located specialist centre; our team are highly tra
ined and dedicated health care professionals; and our services will be delivered in a confidential, sensitive and non-judgemental way.
“Marie Stopes International is well known for focusing on offering services where they are needed most and a centre like ours has never existed before in Northern Ireland – we know that people here want this kind of world class service.
“With our partners, we will be regularly assessing our centre and service offering to understand where we can continue to build and improve our services to meet the needs and requirements of the people of Northern Ireland.”
Speaking to Sunday Politics, current Health Minister Edwin Poots also assured viewers that the clinic would be accountable to the authority of governing bodies: ‘I think it has to be regulated, but it will be regulated one way or the other, either through the police or ourselves, it will be regulated’.
Nonetheless, the public outcry against the establishment of the clinic has been widespread – with the newly established Facebook group ‘We Are Fully Against the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast’ having attracted over 2000 members in several days. A counter group, ‘We Fully Support the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast’, has drawn members in almost equal quantities since its creation. The debate between the pro-choice and pro-life communities as to the morality of abortion has been reignited, with groups such as Precious Life among those planning to protest the foundation of Marie Stopes Northern Ireland.
Speaking to The Guardian, director of Marie Stopes UK and Europe, Tracey McNeill, confirmed that the clinic has hired security guards ahead of this week’s opening, and that the charity has been working in association with the PSNI to review their security measures.