The Marie Stopes Clinic... One year on

It will be 12 months ago tomorrow since the facility opened in Belfast amid protests and even legal questioning. Now its director Dawn Purvis tells our reporter that it's being widely used.

Dawn Purvis pictured in the Marie Stopes Office on Great Victoria Street, Belfast City Centre.

It's been a year since I was the first journalist to walk through the doors of the Marie Stopes sexual and reproductive health clinic in Belfast.

Back then, there was a sense of pride, trepidation, excitement and anticipation, mingling with the smell of fresh paint, as the shelves were stocked and the equipment brought in.

After all, this was something radically new: the first independent clinic on the island of Ireland to offer abortion services. There was bound to be a reaction.

And there was.

On the day the centre opened, October 18, 2012, anti-abortion campaigners picketed the premises, waving banners and shouting slogans, while a white van with the slogan, 'Abortion Is Murder', was driven around the city centre.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General John Larkin, chief legal advisor to the Stormont Executive, wrote to the Justice Committee inviting them to investigate the operations of the clinic.

It was a challenging start to a dramatic year.

In January, a delegation of Marie Stopes representatives, including the Belfast clinic director Dawn Purvis, appeared in front of the Justice Committee, where they gave evidence about how they complied with criminal law in relation to providing abortions in Northern Ireland.

"We answered all their questions as fully as we could without breaching the confidentiality of our clients," says Purvis. "The committee asked for follow-up information, which we provided."

Subsequently, two MLAs, Paul Givan of the DUP and the SDLP's Alban Maginness, attempted to amend the law, as part of the Criminal Justice Bill, to make it illegal to perform an abortion outside the NHS. The amendment failed, due to insufficient cross-community support.

One year on, much of the furore has died down. There is still a small group of protesters outside the building which houses the clinic in Great Victoria Street, during its opening hours on Thursdays and Saturdays.

But once you walk into the clinic, which is on the eighth floor, the prevailing impression is one of calm. From the spotless consulting room to the comfortable nooks where patients can chat, rest and recover, this is a clean, bright, private and above all practical space.

Looking back, Dawn Purvis says that the biggest challenge was the spotlight on the centre when it first opened. "We wanted to reassure people that we are here to do good and that we are working within the law. I hope people now can recognise that, and that they are reassured by the fact that we are now registered and regulated by RQIA (the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority)."

While much of the general public still associates the Marie Stopes centre with terminations -- Purvis says that if she talks about where she works, she often gets the response, 'Oh yes, the abortion clinic' -- the fact remains that, within the existing law, only a very small number of women are actually eligible for the medical procedure, available up to nine weeks gestation.

"Most clients come in for advice on unplanned pregnancies, and a lot want to be assessed to see if they meet the terms of the law," says Purvis.

The clinic has made it clear from the very beginning that it will not divulge the numbers of women who have undergone an abortion procedure on its premises.

"We always said that we wouldn't give out statistics on abortion," Purvis says. "For us, client confidentiality is paramount. That's why the women come here, they trust us. We have treated some women here, but the law is limited in that respect, so, of course, the numbers are small."

What many people don't realise, however, is the breadth of other services also available in the clinic, including short and long-term contraceptive options, emergency contraception, HIV testing, STI testing and treatment, and ultra-sound scanning.

And it's here that Dawn Purvis feels they have made the greatest impact.

"It gives me a real sense of achievement, being able to help all the men and women who come to us," she says.

"Many of them are in dire need, in crisis, and they need our help and support. Just being here, being able to offer that, means a lot."

As Purvis acknowledges, all this is available on the NHS, too. "It's true, the same services are available, but the difference is that we are an integrated service, with everything under the one roof. We have a 24-hour helpline which is open all year round, available to all our clients. And there's no waiting list for appointments."

How does she respond to claims, by the centre's detractors, that they are in it to make money?

"We are a charity, and the fact is that any of the surplus generated by our centres in the UK and Europe is ploughed back into our charitable work.

"Marie Stopes provides family planning and safe abortion services in 42 counties worldwide. That's our mission -- children by choice, not chance."

The Marie Stopes centre prides itself on its accessibility and non-judgmental approach.

Yet anyone wishing to enter or leave the clinic must walk past the anti-abortion protesters who continue to stand at the main door of the building. I was accosted myself as I departed, pursued along the street by a young woman who repeatedly cut across my path, continuing to do so even when I told her to desist.

I found the experience unpleasant and confrontational. How would it be for a young woman already in crisis?

"Clients do complain about the people standing there, trying to stop them on their way in," says Purvis. "People have a right to their opinions. But our focus is on the well-being of our clients, both inside and outside the clinic, and we work closely with our own security and with the police to ensure safe access."

Sitting on Dawn Purvis's desk is a book which she turns to if she is ever feeling in need of encouragement. It's a specially-created volume, containing the vast, spontaneous outpouring of letters, emails, cards and messages of support the clinic received when it first opened. She shows me one postcard from a young man in Co Cork. It says simply, 'I support the Marie Stopes clinic because I love my mum and sister'.

"One year on, that still brings tears to my eyes," says Purvis.

Founder was against abortion

It is an irony, given the controversy which has surrounded the services offered by the organisation, that Marie Stopes was strongly against the termination of pregnancies once they had begun.

Instead she believed that couples should use birth control to limit the size of their families.

Abortions were not offered until after her death from breast cancer in 1958 at her Surrey home.

The Marie Stopes International organisation operates in at least 40 countries. Its services include family planning; abortion and post-abortion care; maternal and child health care including safe delivery and obstetrics; diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted infections; and HIV/AIDS prevention.

According to the organisation's website, the following charges are levied at its Belfast clinic for both men and women.

* Health Screening: Well Woman £180; Well Man £180;

Smear test £77

* STI Screening:

Consultation £62; Chlamydia treatment £41; HIV counselling, test and referral £41; Herpes test, treatment and follow-up £62; Syphilis test and referral £41; Hepatitis test and referral £103-£155; Urine testing £41

* Contraception services:

Emergency contraception pill £31; Pregnancy test £41; Implant insertion £170; Implant removal £103; Mirena (IUS) fitting £191; Copper Coil (IUD) fitting £103; HPV Gardisil £479

* Unplanned pregnancy:

Consultation £80; Post-op Consultation Free; Treatment £350

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