Clinic directors say the only form of abortion they will provide are pills that induce miscarriages in women up to nine weeks pregnant. Such pills are already easily ordered from British suppliers on the Internet, though receipt of such pills in Ireland could be treated as a criminal offense.
Suzanne Lee, a 23-year-old student from Northern Ireland who had a pill-induced abortion last year in Dublin after ordering it off the Internet, said she would have liked to be able to go to a Marie Stopes clinic for medical support, because taking the medication was "quite an ordeal to go through."
She said it involved "severe cramping, a lot of bleeding. I bled for four weeks after it, but because I terminated my pregnancy at six weeks, it was nothing worse than a very bad period." She expressed disgust that many people in Northern Ireland "believe I should spend life in prison for what I did."
Protesters warned that the clinic, if not closed, would become a beachhead for expanding abortion rights in Northern Ireland and, eventually, the Republic of Ireland.
"For Marie Stopes, this is only a first step," said Liam Gibson from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, a predominantly Catholic pressure group.
The Roman Catholic Church in 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," said Bishop Donal McKeown, the senior Catholic in Belfast, who didn't attend the protest. He said directors of Marie Stopes were seeking "to promote the acceptability of abortion."
Only one of Northern Ireland's 108 legislators, Anna Lo, has expressed support for the clinic.
While opinion polls indicate public opinion is split roughly 50-50 on the issue, taking a pro-choice stand is seen as a vote-loser. As a result, Northern Ireland has failed to produce legally binding guidelines for doctors explaining the precise circumstances when abortions can be performed legally here.
Doctors and nurses have asked repeatedly for clearly written government rules to guard them from protests or lawsuits if they're identified as abortion providers. This inaction means that the only legislation dates to 1861, outlawing the "procurement of a miscarriage," and a 1945 amendment creating the exception that permits abortions to preserve the mother's life or health.
The law is even messier in the Republic of Ireland, which won independence from Britain in 1922.
Its constitution bans abortion, but in 1992 the Irish Supreme Court ruled it was legal to receive abortions there, if the woman's life was in danger — including from her own threats to commit suicide if denied one. Successive governments have refused to pass legislation in line with that judgment.
Marie Stopes guide for Irish abortion-seekers, http://bit.ly/HUArKi
Irish Catholic anti-abortion campaign, http://www.chooselife2012.ie/
Precious Life, http://bit.ly/PDRLrt
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