The opening this week of a private abortion clinic in Belfast, the first of its kind in Ireland, has been given a mixed reaction.
The clinic has said it will adhere to the abortion laws which apply in the Six Counties, which allow abortions to take place only where there is a threat to the health of the mother.
Such cases have previously been handled by the health service in the North, or by private clinics in Britain. The Marie Stopes clinic, the British firm which is opening the franchise in Belfast, said there was a demand in Belfast for a private abortion provider.
Unionists in the north of Ireland have opposed abortion with a determination to rival that of the Catholic church, making it a rare area of long-standing policy consensus in the North.
In the 26 Counties, abortion is even more restricted, and only available if performed to save the life of the mother. Since 1992 the state has not prevented women from leaving the jurisdiction to seek an abortion.
Dawn Purvis, the former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, (which was linked to the loyalist paramilitary UVF) is the new director of the new clinic. She told Irish state-run radio that it would be a destination for women from the 26 Counties with unwanted pregnancies.
She said: “If women come to us and they have a consultation with our doctors and they don’t fit with either the legal or medical criteria that exists here, then we can refer them on to one of our centres in England.”
The main unionist parties have expressed their dismay that the organisation had set up a centre in Belfast providing abortions.
Sinn Fein has repeated its general anti-abortion stance but a spokesman confirmed that the party “believes that where a woman’s life or mental health is at risk or in grave danger that the final decision rests with the woman”.
“The Marie Stopes clinic is a private institution. It has to operate under the guidelines and the legal framework set out by the Department of Health in the north,” he said.
Tracey McNeill, the vice-president and director of Marie Stopes, said the clinic was aware that pro-life campaigners would protest.
“We have been planning this for some time and we’ve done quite a bit of work looking at the security of staff and the men and women coming to the service,” Ms McNeill said. “We work in 43 countries and some really hostile environments.”
She said the newly appointed staff “are very brave and I applaud them”.