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 two weeks ago.
The Roman Catholic Church, the largest church in both parts of Ireland, last 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 Marie Stopes directors were seeking “to promote the acceptability of abortion.”
No counterprotests planned
Elsewhere in Northern Ireland, a group of teenagers at a Catholic high school announced they would hold daily lunchtime prayers for the clinic to be closed.
Sheila Fullerton, a teacher at St. Mary’s Grammar School in the town of Magherafelt, said about 40 boys and girls aged 16 and 17 approached her asking to mount the protest.
“They feel strongly this is something they must do,” she said.
Irish abortion rights groups welcomed the clinic’s opening but said they wouldn’t mount counterdemonstrations because that would only encourage potential violence and the intimidation of pregnant women outside the clinic.
The Northern Ireland Health Department says 30 to 50 women per year do receive abortions in local hospitals after doctors deem their pregnancies pose a sufficient risk to their health. It declined to elaborate.
Goretti Horgan, leader of a Belfast-based group called Alliance for Choice, said while the clinic wouldn’t technically offer any increased access to abortion, it would encourage women to seek the abortion pill who previously had to seek state-funded services through their local doctor.
Ms. Horgan said general-practice doctors might be opposed to abortion themselves or fearful of being targeted by protesters or lawsuits. She said this meant women with life-threatening conditions still found themselves flying to Britain as a less difficult option.
“The main need for the clinic is for the women who are ill or very distressed and have a right to a legal abortion here. For those women, I think it’s awful that they put those women on a plane, with their medical notes under their arms. It’s scandalous,” she said.