Protesters have vowed they will stop any abortions being carried out at a controversial new clinic in Belfast.
The Marie Stopes charity is equally adamant its clinic will operate as planned.
Precious Life, an organisation that campaigns against abortion, has said it will launch a major legal and political challenge to stop Marie Stopes from bringing its private abortion service to Northern Ireland.
However, Marie Stopes has rejected any suggestion terminations will be carried out illegally at the facility.
It is appealing for any protests to be peaceful, and insists the opening will go ahead as scheduled.
Following a day of controversy after the announcement that the clinic is set to open its doors next Thursday, fears are growing that there could be clashes outside the premises in Belfast city centre.
Precious Life already holds protests outside the Family Planning Association premises in Belfast where members display graphic images of aborted babies.
The issue has attracted thousands of comments on the Belfast Telegraph website, showing the strength of feeling and how it divides public opinion.
Marie Stopes revealed it has been inundated with messages of support and has even received enquiries from women here who want to know more about the services on offer.
The facility is the first independent clinic offering abortions to women in Northern Ireland.
The service will operate from an office block at Great Victoria Street in Belfast.
Abortions can only be carried out in Northern Ireland under strict medical criteria and there are concerns the number of terminations will increase with the arrival of the new clinic.
The decision on whether an abortion can be carried out is left to the doctor treating the woman and critics suggest staff at Marie Stopes will be more sympathetic to women who want a termination. This will lead to an inevitable rise in the number of abortions carried out here, they argue.
Bernadette Smyth from Precious Life said: “We are taking legal advice and we have a letter ready to go to the chief of police.
“We haven’t made any plans about what we are going to do next week yet. From my point of view, we are going to exhaust every legal and political avenue to stop any abortions from happening.
“I am hoping to make it very clear they have no right to perform abortions here. They can open a clinic that offers contraceptive advice, but not one that performs abortions.”
Dawn Purvis, programme director at Marie Stopes Northern Ireland, said the opening will go ahead and it will review security as necessary.
Tracey McNeill, the UK director of the organisation, said: “People have the right to protest but I would ask they do so peacefully.”
Meanwhile, Health Minister Edwin Poots is refusing to be drawn into the controversy — despite his well-publicised opposition to abortion.
He issued a statement yesterday afternoon in which he said any abortion carried out in Northern Ireland must meet a strict set of criteria.
He said: “I note that Marie Stopes International state very clearly that they will work within the law.
“An operation in Northern Ireland for the termination of a pregnancy may not result in criminal liability when it is necessary to preserve the life of the woman or there is a risk of real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health, which is either long-term or permanent.
“This condition applies no less strongly before nine weeks than longer into the pregnancy.
“Abortion in Northern Ireland is regulated by the criminal law, and punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
“It will be for the police to investigate any concerns that arise and the courts to determine whether an offence has been carried out.”
Staff working in the building where the clinic will be based have also been unwilling to join the debate.
The high-rise block contains offices for other companies and organisations, and a stream of staff were entering and exiting at lunchtime yesterday.
One man, who declined to give his name, said he was concerned the building could become a target for pro-life campaigners.
Officials told of facility 18 months ago, but there are still no regulations to govern it
By Lisa Smyth
Health officials have known about plans to open an abortion clinic in Northern Ireland for 18 months — but failed to take action to ensure it would be regulated.
In a shocking development, it has emerged that Northern Ireland’s first independent abortion clinic is not subject to any kind of regulation or licensing.
Despite there being stringent legislation governing when a termination can be carried out, the Marie Stopes clinic will not have to provide any information about the number of abortions it carries out or why they have happened.
Tracey McNeill, the UK director of the organisation, revealed she spoke to the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) last year about the intention to open a Marie Stopes clinic.
The RQIA is Northern Ireland’s health watchdog which comes under the remit of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
Ms McNeill has described the fact that a facility which carries out abortions can operate without any form of regulation as “incredible”. However, she stressed that staff at the clinic will always operate inside the law.
She said: “We want to be regulated. I have been engaged with the RQIA for 18 months and they have been extremely helpful, but there are some interesting differences between Northern Ireland and England.
“In England, our clinics are regulated by the Care Quality Commission which governs the services we provide. We also have to have a licence from the Department of Health.
“However, because the 1967 Abortion Act doesn’t apply in Northern Ireland, there are no licensing arrangements to issue licences to carry out terminations of pregnancy.”
Ms McNeill said she is happy to work with the RQIA in future and that the clinic will operate a transparent service.
“My understanding is there is absolutely no legal requirement for us to provide information on the abortions carried out, but that doesn’t mean this is not something we wouldn’t want to do as long as it protects the confidentiality of the women who come to us,” she said.
“We asked to be regulated by the RQIA because we are a professional organisation and we will run the clinic in Belfast under the standards put in place by the Care Quality Commission.”
A spokesman from the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority said: “The nature of services proposed by Marie Stopes International are currently not subject to regulation under The Health and Personal Social Services (Quality, Improvement and Regulation) (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.
“RQIA will continue to liaise with the service provider to ensure that any changes in the proposed service model that results in a requirement for regulation are dealt with appropriately.”
Marie Stopes is aware of the law. Only a change in legislation will derail this
By Liam Clarke
Marie Stopes is on safe legal grounds in opening an abortion clinic in Northern Ireland. Provided reasonable care is taken, the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act, which threatens life imprisonment for “procuring a miscarriage”, is a paper tiger.
Despite its strictures, there is not a single relevant case in which a Northern Ireland court has either found anyone guilty of procuring a miscarriage, or denied an abortion once it was applied for with medical backing.
In case law going back to 1993, judges here have always avoided a clash with the medical profession.
Marie Stopes proposes allowing two doctors to authorise abortions. That is required in England under the 1967 Abortion Act, but Justice Kerr found differently in 2004.
Here a doctor need not seek a second opinion, as is required in England, if they believed an abortion would avert a real risk of serious long-term damage to a pregnant woman's mental or physical health.
Mental health is open to interpretation. We need to look back to earlier cases to see what it may mean.
In 1993 an abortion was allowed on the basis that a pregnant minor talked of taking her own life if she had a baby. The judge accepted medical opinion that she would be “a physical and mental wreck”.
A year later this test was watered down and another abortion was allowed because the threat to a prospective mother's mental or physical health (not necessarily both) was judged “real and serious”.
In 1995 the courts permitted two more abortions, one for a mentally handicapped woman who was a ward of court and another for a 16-year-old whose doctors said she had threatened to end her own life.
Women with crisis pregnancies often mention taking their own lives and once that happens it is hard for a doctor — or a court — to show that no real danger of long-term mental or physical damage exists.
The “medical abortions” Marie Stopes plans to carry out here involve administering two pills, Mifepristone and Misoprostol, which are already easily obtained through the internet with instructions for home use.
Many women in Northern Ireland take them without medical supervision despite the risk of haemorrhage.
By administering them under safe conditions, Marie Stopes can argue that it is protecting the mental and physical welfare of patients who were otherwise likely to take them unsupervised.
So far Northern Ireland doctors have been unwilling to push these boundaries.
Many do not fully understand the law and few want to be involved in test cases where losing might theoretically involve jail.
Equally, the politicians have been reluctant to issue clear guidelines based on the existing case law because they know that clarifying things would end up extending abortion rights.
Presumably the doctors at Marie Stopes will know the case law and the organisation will be prepared to back them if there is a test case.
The only way to stop Marie Stopes in its tracks would be new legislation.
That would be a challenging process — politically and legally.
Lone voice of welcome amid chorus of opposition from churches and parties
By Colin O'Carroll
The news that the first clinic offering abortions will open in Northern Ireland has provoked widespread political and religious reaction.
Catholic Bishop Noel Treanor said: “It is with great concern and dismay that I, like many fellow citizens who value and seek to protect human life, received news of the decision to open a Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast where medical abortion will be offered.”
Church of Ireland spokesman Rev Adrian Dorrian said: “We would consistently oppose any attempts to introduce abortion on demand in Northern Ireland.”
Presbyterian Church spokesman Lindsay Conway said: “The Presbyterian Church would strongly oppose any attempt to undermine or liberalise the abortion legislation as it currently stands in Northern Ireland that termination of human life at any stage within the womb should not be considered except under the most extreme circumstances.”
Alliance MLA Anna Lo welcomed the clinic, but stressed she was speaking personally.
She said: “This is a step forward in the right direction for Northern Ireland, especially considering that we are decades behind the rest of the UK on this issue. There is still more work to do to offer women full choice but this is a ground-breaking day for women in Northern Ireland.”
Sinn Fein said: “Sinn Fein is not in favour of abortion... Sinn Fein believes that where a woman’s life or mental health is at risk or in grave danger that the final decision rests with the woman.”
A DUP spokesman said: “The DUP does not support any change to the current abortion laws in Northern Ireland.”
SDLP health spokesman Conall McDevitt said: “The SDLP is a pro-life party.
“Any health provider in this area must comply with the very strict legal requirements in this jurisdiction at present,” he added.
Ulster Unionist Party spokeswoman Sandra Overend said: “While I have personal concerns on the issue of abortion, I do believe that people should have access to help and advice on their sexual health.”