Call for abortion clinic inquiry as Marie Stopes opens new centre in Belfast
Northern Ireland's Attorney General has called for an investigation into the opening of the country's first private abortion clinic.
John Larkin, who is the chief legal adviser to the Stormont Executive, has written to the justice committee asking it look into the practices of the new facility which officially opens today.
The request comes as up to 150 anti-abortion activists gathered to protest outside the Marie Stopes centre on Belfast's Great Victoria Street.
The new facility will offer terminations up to nine weeks' gestation, each costing £450.
Bernadette Smyth, from the Precious Life lobby group which organised the rally, said: "There is no will for Marie Stopes to be here, they are not welcome here. The people here want to make a stand. Unborn children here are precious and there is no will for abortion to be legalised here from the people or politicians. It's clear that unborn children are protected here.
"We are still seeking legal advice. I would not rule out an injunction. I am still working with the justice system and our politicians to ensure that Marie Stopes does not take the lives of any unborn children."
Protesters carrying placards, some showing graphic images of foetuses, have sung hymns and prayed throughout the morning.
Daire Fitzgerald, 51, travelled from Dublin to take part. He said: "I was shocked to hear that Marie Stopes is opening in Ireland. There is no need. It is just horrible that they have moved here - people on both sides of the border do not want this."
In Northern Ireland abortion is not illegal but is strictly controlled. The procedure is only permitted if the life or mental health of the mother is at serious risk.
A spokesman for the Attorney General's office confirmed that a letter had been sent to the Stormont justice committee's DUP chairman, Paul Givan.
In it, Mr Larkin said he was not allowed to intervene in an official capacity but could offer advice, act as counsel and interview witnesses in a non-statutory role as guardian of the rule of law.
Meanwhile, Marie Stopes has insisted its new centre, which is headed by former Progressive Unionist Party MLA Dawn Purvis, will operate within the current legal framework, providing medical not surgical terminations up to nine weeks' gestation with aftercare including counselling.
Tracey McNeill, vice president and director of Marie Stopes UK and Europe, said the organisation would not break the law.
She said: "We knew that this was never going to be easy. The reason we are here is that we know there is a need for a service like ours.
"What we are providing is family planning, contraception and counselling. The majority of women that come to us we won't be able to treat because of the legal framework and we are really clear about that. But, if we can provide them with a space in which they can make their own decisions and choices, then the team will have done a good job.
"We are clear about the law here. The team here are all from Northern Ireland - we understand the culture here. We don't want to change the culture here and have abortion on demand. This is about offering choice."
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