Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

Ulster abortion clinic furore sees Dawn Purvis face down zealots

Dawn Purvis, programme director with Marie Stopes Northern Ireland, in her new Belfast office in the city centre

Dawn Purvis, the new director of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, is a brave human being. She has taken a dramatic and empowering stand for the women of Northern Ireland.

Despite the hysterical rantings of militant anti-abortion campaigners and fundamentalist politicians, who insist that Northern Ireland is a resolutely 'pro-life' zone, there are many people here who are pro-choice.

That does not mean that we rub our hands with glee at the thought of abortion – who would? - and neither does it necessarily mean that we would choose to have this procedure ourselves.

What it does mean is that we respect a woman's moral and medical prerogative, when faced with a crisis pregnancy, to make her own decision, without judgement, opprobrium or blame.

We believe that any society which aspires to be a humane, compassionate democracy should allow her to do this, in consultation with her doctors, and within defined legal parameters.

There should be no place for high emotion, lies and fear. This is a momentous choice, and it is rarely an easy one.

Some of us have called for abortion provision in Northern Ireland, and some have not. But none of us have gone further and taken decisive action to make those much-needed services available.

In opening the first fully integrated sexual and reproductive centre in Belfast, Dawn Purvis has taken that courageous step, and for that she should be warmly applauded.

Thanks to her, fewer desperate women will be forced to take that long, lonely, costly journey to England or Wales, denied the basic rights over their own bodies that people in the rest of the UK take for granted.

I was with Dawn Purvis on Wednesday afternoon at the new Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast city centre when a news website broke an embargo and leaked the fact that the centre was to open next Thursday.

Although disappointed with the way the news came out, Purvis took the situation in her stride, in her usual practical, unflappable and formidable style. She's a woman that you mess with at your peril.

Her position is simple: she wants to promote good, healthy sexual relationships, providing a supportive, confidential service to men and women in Northern Ireland – and that may include safe, legal terminations - without judgement, guilt or embarassment.

Purvis is clear that the new clinic will operate within the existing legal framework governing abortions in Northern Ireland. No-one will be coerced into having a termination; as Purvis says, “it's about choice, at every step of the way”.

Although women will have to pay for the services, Marie Stopes is a not-for-profit charity, which makes a nonsense of the strident claims that the organisation will profit from providing abortions here.

The clinic itself, in an office block in Great Victoria Street, is a bright, welcoming and open space, with the smell of fresh paint and new carpets still in the air.

It is equipped with specialist consulting and treatment rooms, and there are plenty of comfortable, discreet sitting areas where patients can talk or rest. Purvis showed me a large glass cupboard, still empty, where contraceptive options will be clearly displayed. “That's part of the message,” she said, “we want to be open and upfront about all these matters.”

Let's be clear. We would all like to see fewer women having abortions. No-one wants to treat abortion as the easy, casual, default option.

It is an unpleasant procedure, and the further a woman goes into her pregnancy, the more unpleasant and risky it becomes. But there will always be situations where a crisis pregnancy poses a real, serious and long-term threat to the physical and mental health of a woman.

It is for that reason that termination services must be available. Because, if they're not, you can be sure that desperate women will find a way, legal or illegal. And the results of that can be deadly.

That's why it's such a bitter joke for people like Jim Allister or Bernadette Smyth of Precious Life to claim that the services of Marie Stopes International are not needed here.

Last year, 1007 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England or Wales for an abortion. Tens of thousands more have been forced to do the same over the last few decades, denied their rights by a country that cared more about politics, piety and propriety than the lives of its own citizens.

Not many of us would have the courage to stand up against the zealots and ideologues as Dawn Purvis is doing.

It is to her lasting credit that she is willing to expose herself to their fury, so that vulnerable women can at last get the true choice that they deserve.

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