BY TARA MCEVOY
On a rainy and otherwise unremarkable day in Belfast, one of the most polarising debates in recent memory is forcing people onto the streets in respective manifestations of outrage and support. Just beyond Royal Avenue, awash with shoppers and those popping out for a bite to eat, a protest is brewing – turn the corner onto Great Victoria Street and you’ll be met with the banners, flags and megaphones of a crowd which amounts to an estimated 400 at its peak. In a rare display of unity, people from all denominations – and those without any religion at all – have converged in protest at the opening of sexual health clinic Marie Stopes Northern Ireland.
So far, so seemingly innocuous. Yet the centre’s establishment incidentally marks something of a landmark for the capital –Marie Stopes’ Belfast centre is the first clinic of its kind in Ireland to offer private abortions.
While abortions can be offered in exceptional circumstances, such as in cases where the mother’s life or long-term physical or mental health is in danger, relatively few are carried out. The Belfast Telegraph recently reported that forty abortions are carried out a year in Northern Ireland. In contrast, some fifty women a week travel to Great Britain for the procedure. Yet many of the pro-life protesters at today’s demonstration fear that the opening of Marie Stopes Northern Ireland could act as a gateway to terminations becoming more widely available.
The topic is contentious on a global stage. In America, pundits predict the current presidential race will be swayed by social issues such as abortion. Closer to home, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s recent comments backing a legal lowering of the time limit on termination of pregnancy from 24 to 12 weeks caused a public outcry.
Yet despite fuelling debate internationally, the subject of abortion is notoriously divisive in Ireland. The North represents the only region in UK where the Abortion Act of 1967 does not apply. Moves to loosen regulations on the practice have faced almost unanimous opposition from political parties at Stormont and church groups, and have been bemoaned by the country’s numerous pro-life organisations. It has recently come to light that Northern Ireland’s Attorney General, in a 2008 radio discussion, compared abortion to 'putting a bullet in the back of the head' of a baby.
Obviously, the centre’s management isn’t oblivious to the wider realities of the opposition they face. In a statement released through their website this week, director of Marie Stopes Northern Ireland (and former PUP leader) Dawn Purvis, noted ‘Some groups are protesting and, whilst we respect their right to do so, we hope they too will respect an individual’s sexual and reproductive health rights, and a woman’s right to choose’.
Despite running up against such protests, she added, ‘The level of support Marie Stopes International has received over the past week has been truly inspiring – we have been inundated with messages of support and thanks’.
Standing in front of the centre, however, messages of support and thanks are far from the minds of the protestors.
Patricia McCauley, a representative of Choose Life Ministries, Ballymena, originally from Scotland, expresses her belief (one that is echoed by several voices of opposition throughout the day) that the opening of Marie Stopes Northern Ireland is ‘the thin end of the wedge’ that will lead to an influx of abortion clinics being founded in the city.
‘This is the way abort
ion came in in Scotland’, she says, ‘People were concerned with the life of the mother, then they cared about the mental health of the mother, then it went further. Now in Scotland, they don’t use contraception – they have abortions. The same door is opening in Northern Ireland. This is a sleeked way of introducing abortion in Northern Ireland. But people here won’t stand for it. They won’t get away with it’.Pro Life Protester Photograph: Tyler McNally
Her views are shared by James Dowson, leader of extremist group UK Life League: ‘Listen, when they brought abortion into Scotland, they said it was only going to happen within the law. Who are they kidding?’
Why the outcry now, I enquire, when after all – the opening of the centre marks no actual legislative change?
‘Things have changed’, he claims, ‘Look at all these people out here. People have come here to show representatives up at Stormont that we’re not having this. Don’t underestimate the strength of the pro-life movement, or the Christian movement. Come the next elections, the people who should be standing here, the MLAs, will have to answer for this’.
Yet perhaps the most vocal opponents of the centre’s opening are pro-life group Precious Life, founded in 1997 by Bernadette Smith. ‘Precious Life have been warning all along that Marie Stopes were barging into Northern Ireland, uninvited and unwanted’, Smith states. She argues that the turnout at today’s rally illustrates that, ‘the people of Northern Ireland want our
unborn children protected and are opposed to Marie Stopes’.
Not more than half an hour after this protest, however – a flash demonstration at Belfast’s City Hall clearly displays the city’s divided allegiances. This group – numbering around 20 and comprised mainly of members of the Socialist Workers’ Party and Alliance for Choice – had been asked by the team at Marie Stopes not to engage in a counter-demo at the centre’s opening for fear the situation may escalate. Yet still determined to show their support, they have assembled a few streets away in a display of solidarity with the centre’s staff. Bearing placards sporting slogans such as ‘Rosaries off my ovaries’ and ‘A womb of one’s own’, they are enthusiastic about what they see as a step towards greater choice for women.
‘Hundreds of students are onboard’, says Gemma Benson, a student of Queen’s University and representative of Alliance for Choice, ‘Most are overwhelmingly pro-choice. It’s an extension of social policy here within Northern Ireland, and another right that’s restricted to women. We pay the same taxes as anyone in England, yet don’t have access to the same health services. Marie Stopes isn’t just an abortion centre, it’s a sexual health and reproduction centre that will give women in this community a lot more choice’.
And her views on the Pro-Life protestors? ‘They’re entitled to their opinion’, she starts, ‘but we don’t feel it should be formal policy’.
For a country struggling to reconcile such vastly opposing views, the opening of Marie Stopes Northern Ireland marks a significant turning point. The centre’s establishment has once again brought to the forefront of the public consciousness an issue which divides opinion like no other, mired in controversy. Regardless of one’s personal views on the matter, it’s evident that – with such vocal protests on either side of the debate – the question of abortion is one which is going to disappear overnight.