The first abortion clinic in Northern Ireland, to be run by a British charity that already operates such clinics in more than 40 countries, has opened in Belfast.
The clinic, which was opened on Thursday, has sparked protests by both the Catholic and Protestant sides of Northern Ireland.
The Marie Stopes family planning centre will offer the abortion pill to women who are less than nine weeks pregnant, but only if doctors determine they are at risk of death or long-term health damage from their pregnancy.
That is the law in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where abortion is otherwise illegal.
Ahead of the opening, more than 200 protesters gathered outside the central Belfast clinic waving placards reading “Keep Ireland abortion free”.
Protesters demanded that the clinic be shut down.
“Women’s health is not in danger. Women are not dying because they cannot get abortions,” Bernadette Smyth, the Protestant leader of a Belfast anti-abortion group called Precious Life, said.
Relatively few abortions
Officials from Marie Stopes said they expect to provide relatively few abortions in Northern Ireland, given the heavy legal restrictions.
But they said Belfast, and all of Ireland, needed a non-judgmental, non-threatening place where women in crisis pregnancies could go for guidance.
They said their office was already receiving calls from women in the Republic of Ireland, where it’s illegal to receive shipments of the abortion pill through the mail.
“Mostly what we’ll be doing is offering advice. Many of the people we see we won’t be able to treat, because of the legal framework,” said Tracey McNeill, vice-president of Marie Stopes.
The Roman Catholic Church, the largest church in both parts of Ireland, this week launched a monthlong campaign to press the Irish government to strengthen its constitutional ban on abortion.
It has denounced the Belfast clinic’s opening but shied away from calling for protests.
“We are in the middle of a struggle for the soul of Northern Ireland,” Bishop Donal McKeown, the senior Catholic in Belfast, said.
He said Marie Stopes directors were seeking “to promote the acceptability of abortion”.