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Abortion: Away from home, they are alone and vulnerable.

Aggressive lobbying in Belfast

Despite aggressive lobbying, protests, and threats of violence, Belfast (in Northern Ireland) has opened its first clinic offering abortion services. Opposition to the clinic has been fierce in the predominantly Catholic nation, despite offering services in line with the current legal guidelines on abortion.

More than 4,000 Irish women travel abroad yearly to seek access to abortion services, due to the restrictive nature of the laws in Ireland and the social stigma surrounding the procedure. This often leads to women having to undergo the procedure when they are alone and vulnerable, whilst also presenting enormous financial challenges. 

Director of the clinic, Dawn Purvis has written about how, despite extraordinary opposition, her passion for protecting women’s right to reproductive choice and providing support to women facing extremely difficult circumstances helps her push through the protestors to open the doors each day. Dawn writes…

We open our doors today, to offer choice to the men and women of this country for the first time ever.

I turn 46 next week and in all that time there has never been a place here at home for a woman to go to in order to get some help when faced with an unplanned pregnancy.  When I was a child I used to hear women huddled in the street talking about a poor girl ‘getting herself in trouble’.  As a 7 or 8 year old I used to wonder what the ‘poor girl’ had done to be in so much trouble.  It must have been something really,  really bad to have all the mummy’s and grannies whispering about it.

I also wondered what happened to the ‘poor girl’, how was she punished for getting into ‘trouble’?   Sometimes we didn’t see her again for weeks.  Had she been sent away to the ‘bad girls home’ that we were always warned about?  Often when she did appear on the street again, she walked with her head down and hurried past the women who were staring at her and tutting.

It was only as I got a little older that I realised what the ‘trouble’ meant.  These ‘poor girls’ had an unplanned pregnancy.  They had little or no support and a society that shunned them.  Many had to beg, borrow and steal to get money together for the ‘boat trip across the water to sort them out’.  They lied to family and friends about where they were going and for what purpose.  Some crept away in the middle of the night.  They were gone for days.

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The feelings of shame and guilt must have been like a millstone around their neck.  For many of the poorest women in my community, a boat trip was way beyond their means.  The only options left were to continue with a pregnancy they didn’t want or find some ‘other means’ to end it.

Taken from the “We Fully Support the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast” Facebook page

Where I lived in Belfast, the ‘other means’ was an alcoholic doctor who had been struck off the register for malpractice.  He could be found most days propping up the bar at a local flea-bitten hotel.

If you could afford to buy him a bottle of vodka or even set him up a couple of drinks he would sort out your ‘trouble’.  The woman was given a time and a place to show up – usually some dirty scullery in a back street.  If they were lucky enough they survived.

For years I have helped and supported women who wanted nothing more but to be given the opportunity to make decisions about their own bodies; to be able to decide if they want to have a family; to choose when to have a child; and to decide how many children they would like.

Today, within the law of Northern Ireland, we and all of our colleagues in Marie Stopes International are offering women that choice for the very first time.  This is a momentous occasion in the history of this country and one that I believe will make a lasting impact on sexual and reproductive healthcare choices for men and women on this island.

I am completely overwhelmed by the messages of support, some from women who have had to make that journey alone and in very stressful circumstances, others from just ordinary members of the public who are really glad that we are here.

We are here, we are open, and we will work hard to deliver these very much-needed services to our clients in the very caring, supportive and professional manner that we do throughout the organisation.

We look forward to our work ahead.  It will be challenging but it will be extremely worthwhile to know that we have helped and supported just one woman facing very difficult circumstances.

Dawn is the the director of the first Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast.

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