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Orange and Green bigots unite in opposition to Marie Stopes clinic

There is a widely promoted perspective which holds that the peace process, and the political structures it created, has ushered in a new more liberal era in Northern Ireland. However, the threadbare nature of such claims is exposed by events that show the politics of the North to be as reactionary as they have ever even been. For the most part these events, such as the recent loyalist flag protests, relate to the persistence of sectarianism. But other issues, not necessarily related to community divisions, also serve to highlight a broader reaction.

One of the most important of these issues is abortion. And this has been ignited once again by the opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast. It is the first abortion clinic on the island of the Ireland, carrying out chemically induced abortions for women who are up to nine weeks pregnant. Such procedures fall within the existing legal framework in Northern Ireland which allows for abortions up to twelve weeks if a woman’s life is under threat. While the laws are much more restrictive than those in Britain abortion is legal in the North. Indeed, every year there are forty to fifty abortions carried out within the NHS. In addition, it is estimated that 1,000 women from the north travel annually to Britain for abortions. 

Despite the Marie Stopes organisation’s strict adherence to the law and willingness to engage with health authorities the opening of its Belfast clinic has provoked a furious response from anti-abortion groups and local political parties. The hostility in the Assembly was almost unanimous with only one its 108 members, the Alliance’s Anna Lo, expressing support. The response at the level of the executive was a mixture of feigned ignorance and vague threats. In a statement to MLAs the DUP health minister expressed surprise at the opening (despite his Department receiving nine months prior notice) and then threatened to send in the police to investigate the clinic, warning medical staff that they were operating in a “legal minefield” and if found to have broken the law could end up with life sentences. While other parties may have more measured in terms of rhetoric their opposition to abortion wasn’t any less implacable. SDLP members spoke sanctimoniously about “maximum compassion” for women while still denying them choice. Typically Sinn Fein tried to point in two directions – opposing abortion while acknowledging in certain (undefined) circumstances a woman could opt for a termination. They also made some snide comments about Marie Stopes being a private healthcare provider, which in the light of recent reports of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams receiving treatment at a private clinic in the US, appear even more hypocritical and irrelevant now than they did at the time. 

The political opposition to Marie Stopes did not just come from politicians but also from state officials. Probably the most active intervention was by the attorney general John Larkin. In a letter to the Assembly’s justice committee he accused the clinic of seeking a change in the abortion law. He urged the committee to lunch an investigation into the facility and also suggested that he could assist in the interrogation of witnesses and the issuing of injunctions. Larkin claimed that he was acting as “Guardian of the Rule of Law” but clearly such activism went well beyond his primary role as legal adviser to the executive. These proposals would have effectively seen Marie Stopes officials put on trial before a grand jury with Larkin as chief prosecutor. Whilst it did not transpire such a scenario conjures up proceedings more reminiscent of the Salem witch-hunts than a democratic chamber. However, when we consider Larkin’s extreme anti-abortion views we get an understanding how such proposals could get an airing. In comments were made in a May 2008 radio discussion, six months before he was appointed Attorney General, Larkin compared abortion to “putting a bullet in the head of the child two days after it's born.” That such a view was not a barrier to his appointment and that Robinson and McGuinness could endorse his activism against Marie Stopes indicates where the political class stand on the issue of abortion. While they may pose as upholders of the law (which allows for abortion in limited circumstances) they are in reality for a total ban. 

Unlike politicians anti-abortion activists feel no need to make gestures toward legality and their uncompromising opposition was on full display at a demonstration to coincide with the opening of the Belfast clinic. What was notable about this demonstration was that it embraced the whole range of right wing opinion both unionist and nationalist, Catholic and Protestant. Those present included former BNP fundraiser and UK Life League supporter Jim Dowson who declared that Marie Stopes "has brought communities here together.” (This statement was particularly ironic considering Dowson's later prominence as an organiser of loyalist flag protests.) He was joined by Daire Fitzgerald of the Catholic Solidarity movement and by Bernadette Smyth of the pressure group Precious Life who demanded that "the heads of government run Marie Stopes out of Northern Ireland." The opposition to Marie Stopes was also endorsed by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church with Bishop Donal McKeown declaring that "we are in the middle of a struggle for the soul of Northern Ireland." 

Despite the rhetoric of politicians and church leaders it is questionable whether their implacable opposition to abortion is reflective of the broader population. For example, the initial demonstration against the Marie Stopes clinic failed to mobilise the expected numbers despite extensive advertising. Subsequent pickets of the clinic have drawn only a handful of people. Public opinion is also shifting with recent surveys showing significant support for abortion in the cases of rape and life threatening conditions. 

However, it would be a mistake to rely on public opinion or the law for the achievement of reproductive rights. The anti-abortion position continues to have a stranglehold on the political system. And while the establishment of an abortion clinic in Belfast is an advance for women throughout Ireland the determination of politicians and religious groups to halt even its limited services makes its existence precarious. 

What's needed to defend this small advance and to push for more is the creation of a movement that takes up the fight not only against women's oppression but against all forms of oppression. This requires an orientation towards the working class and the compass of socialist politics.


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