- (Photo: Reuters)
Hundreds of Christians gathered on Friday to protest the opening of Northern Ireland's first private abortion clinic in the capital, Belfast, demanding that the country be kept "abortion free."
In Northern Ireland, where a large portion of the population is Roman Catholic, abortion can only be performed in the first nine weeks of pregnancy. The Republic of Ireland, its southern neighbor, has similarly restrictive laws – abortions are illegal unless the mother's life is in danger.
''We understand the culture here in Northern Ireland; we don't want to change the culture … and have abortion on demand. What this is about is offering choice,'' Tracey McNeill, vice-president of the abortion clinic, Marie Stopes International, said while trying to defend the clinic.
''For the first time, the people of Northern Ireland can visit a single health center for information, advice and help with contraception, HIV and sexually transmitted infections and -- when the legal requirements are met -- early medical abortion,'' a statement from organization adds.
''Anyone coming to us can be assured that we fully respect their privacy and our dedicated healthcare team will provide them with confidential, sensitive and non-judgmental care.''
But both Catholic and Protestant churchgoers joined together in front of the clinic, holding pro-life banners, singing hymns and praying, The Los Angeles Times reported.
Precious Life, a Christian organization that supported the protests, has argued that unborn babies should not be punished for mistakes their parents have made.
''We don't want the lives of unborn children to be taken because of a crisis. Let's provide better healthcare, let's provide better resources for those women in crisis pregnancies,'' commented Bernadette Smyth, founder of Precious Life.
"An organization which is making profits from the death of unborn children is not welcome in Northern Ireland. There will be an outcry from the people, from government and from the churches. There is no demand for Marie Stopes in Northern Ireland. The figures for women seeking an abortion have been coming down," she added.
John Larkin, Northern Ireland's attorney general, has also asked Northern Ireland's Justice Committee to investigate on what legal grounds the abortion clinic is operating, and to make sure that the services it is offering do not go against the government's laws.
The LA Times article noted that about 1,000 Northern Irish women travel yearly to England to have abortions, where the procedure is much more accessible.
"For women in Northern Ireland, abortion is a fact of life and they are going to do whatever they can to get them if they want them," commented Mara Clarke, leader of the Abortion Support Network.