The first abortion clinic on the island of Ireland is scheduled to open today, as around 150 protesters gathered outside its doors in central Belfast.
Marie Stopes International, which has 629 centers in 40 countries, is opening the clinic in the Northern Irish capital at 1:00 p.m. local time.
Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have some of Europe’s toughest anti-abortion laws Europe. In Northern Ireland, the procedure can only be performed in the first nine weeks of pregnancy and if a women’s health is at serious risk. South of the border, abortions are illegal unless a women’s life is a risk.
“This is definitely a step in the wrong direction,” said Hugh O’Connor, a 45 year-old construction worker from Dungiven, around 50 miles from Belfast. “If it wasn’t here a few more lives might be saved. I’m sad and I’m angry about it.”
Many protesters held banners calling for the clinic to be closed, some reciting prayers and singing ‘Ave Maria.’ Around 20 police were in attendance.
The clinic director, Dawn Purvis, a former lawmaker in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly, said last week Marie Stopes will operate strictly within the U.K. region’s laws. Elsewhere in the U.K., abortions can be carried out up to 24 weeks and with no need to show a woman would have severe psychological or physical harm should she give birth.
Last year around 1,000 women from Northern Ireland traveled to mainland U.K. for abortions, according to Britain’s Health Ministry. Some 4,000 women from the Republic of Ireland traveled to Britain for terminations.
“Northern Ireland is a very pro-life country,” Bernadette Smyth, one of the protest organizers told reporters today. “We will be here again. We want to keep Ireland abortion free.”