Dawn Purvis, programme director of Marie Stopes Northern Ireland in the new Belfast clinic / PA

Opening of Marie Stopes service divides the community despite tougher regulations

The woman in her 40s, sheltering from the rain in a downtown Belfast doorway yesterday, was completely unaware that the building will soon house the city's first private abortion clinic.

The opening, which will take place next week, has caused quite a stir but the news had not reached her.

"Really?" said the woman, a west Belfast Catholic in her 40s. "Well, I would say okay, yep, go ahead. I used to work in a youth background in my neighbourhood and we gave out advice. I can see where there are times where it does have to be used."

Was her attitude typical of others in her Catholic district? "No, I wouldn't think so," she said, shaking her head with a smile.

Just along the street, a 20-year-old single woman waiting at a bus stop voices the hostility of many locals. "I don't agree with that. I think that's terrible, that's awful. It shouldn't happen here at all."

The new clinic, run by the Marie Stopes organisation, is on the eighth floor of an anonymous office block in an area known for its nightlife, close to the Europa Hotel and Belfast's opera house. Inside it features many small rooms for discretion and privacy.

There is little in the way of major medical equipment, since procedures will be carried out with drugs rather than surgery. "This place is warm, welcoming and non-judgemental, offering safety, security and confidentiality," the programme director Dawn Purvis told The Independent.

The clinic is a first for Northern Ireland but still subject to its strict abortion laws, which have not kept pace with the rest of the UK. In Northern Ireland, abortions can only be carried out in a pregnancy's first nine weeks, and when continuing the pregnancy would have serious, long-term effects on the physical or mental health of the woman.

These conditions mean that many women will continue to travel to England for abortions. More than 1,000 did so in 2011. "I don't expect that to stop," Ms Purvis said. "We can provide a link to centres in England, which will reduce some of their trauma, because it's a very lonely journey. Many of them have to go by themselves – having to beg, borrow, steal and lie to family and friends about where they're going."

She said in her community work she heard about backstreet abortions.

Pro-life campaigner Bernadette Smyth, from the Precious Life group, yesterday said she would take legal action against the clinic's opening and intended to make a formal complaint to the police. She added: "I will be in communication with the government to ensure any plans to destroy the life of an unborn child are stopped immediately. There is no demand for Marie Stopes in Northern Ireland."

Case study: 'In Ireland, you don't know who you can turn to'

Suzanne Lee, 23, from Belfast, was studying mathematical sciences at university in Dublin when she found out she was pregnant earlier this year

"I couldn't afford to travel to the UK, so took the abortion pill at home at seven weeks pregnant. Abortion is illegal in the Republic so I had to get it delivered to my home address in Belfast and then get someone to travel down and deliver it to me. "It was enormously stressful waiting for it to arrive. In Ireland, you have no idea what someone's view on abortion is. You don't know who you can turn to and who is going to judge you. Luckily my boyfriend at the time was incredibly supportive. We came to the decision together after a long period of discussion. I also had good support from my friends. But it was still very stressful to take the pill with no medical supervision. It was painful but I expected that. Later I went to a family planning clinic for a check-up and they advised for me to have an ultrasound check. As a student I couldn't afford it so I just had some blood tests and hoped everything would be okay. If people are going to judge me they are going to judge me. I know I made the right decision."