- Associated Press - Thursday, October 18, 2012

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — The first abortion clinic on the island of Ireland opened Thursday in Belfast, sparking protests by conservatives from both the Catholic and Protestant sides of Northern Ireland.

The Marie Stopes family planning center will offer the abortion pill to women who are less than nine weeks pregnant — but only if doctors determine they’re at risk of death or long-term health damage from their pregnancy.

That’s the law in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where abortion is otherwise illegal.

But more than 200 protesters opposed to abortion under any circumstances gathered outside the central Belfast clinic hours ahead of its opening Thursday, waving placards reading “Keep Ireland abortion free.”

And Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin wrote to lawmakers who broadly oppose abortion, offering his help if they investigate the clinic’s operations. Mr. Larkin said he could order the clinic to be closed only if evidence emerged of “serious criminal conduct” there.

Protesters demanded that the clinic be shut down regardless, lest it become a beachhead for expanding abortion rights in Northern Ireland, the only corner of the United Kingdom that has not legalized abortion on demand.

“We’re in 2012. Women’s health is not in danger. Women are not dying because they cannot get abortions,” said Bernadette Smyth, the Protestant leader of a Belfast anti-abortion group called Precious Life.

“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.

He called on Belfast police to arrest the clinic’s doctors and directors if they give women information about abortion services in neighboring Britain, where abortions have been legal since 1967. About 4,000 women from the Republic of Ireland and 1,000 from Northern Ireland travel there annually for abortions.

Officials from Marie Stopes, a British charity that already operates such clinics in more than 40 countries, 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 nonjudgmental, nonthreatening place where women in crisis pregnancies could go for guidance. They said their office already was 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.

Ms. McNeill said she had no problem with the protesters so long as they didn’t threaten or intimidate clients.

“It’s important that people express their views in a democracy,” she said.

Police erected crowd-control barriers outside the clinic on Great Victoria Street, one of Belfast’s broadest boulevards, to prevent protesters from blocking the clinic’s entrance and sidewalk. Clinic directors had tried to keep its location secret, but that information was leaked last week.

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