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Social Change

First Irish abortion clinic opens in Belfast

In Belfast, an abortion clinic has opened its doors, the first ever stand-alone clinic on the island of Ireland. It isn't expected to increase the number of abortions, but it is a significant Irish cultural change.

Barbara Kennedy and Fiona King live a couple blocks from each other in the Irish capital, Dublin. The teachers, each in their forties, meet every week for a glass of wine and a chat. This week, instead of husbands or work, they were talking about the abortion clinic that opened in Belfast on Thursday.

"There is no way an abortion clinic would have been built here 20 years ago, in Dublin, Belfast or anywhere on the island. The priests would've been in the pulpits on Sunday, saying 'you've got to go against this,' and people would have listened," said Kennedy.

"But you no longer go for your moral guidance to the church. So we're not as influenced by it," King said.

The women say Irish clergy lack moral standing after numerous scandals in Catholic and Protestant churches over the years. And many Irish pastors and priests acknowledge that religious influence on the island is waning.

Take Trevor Brock, pastor of the Great Victoria Street Baptist Church, located just two blocks away from the clinic. Though he fiercely opposes abortion - Brock describes Irish Baptists as ideological cousins to the conservative Southern Baptist Convention in the United States - he has no plans to bring up the opening during this Sunday’s services.

"To be honest, I probably won't mention it all. Individuals have talked to me about it in private, so I don't see the value of making any big blanket statements about the issue," Brock told DW.

The clinic will offer the abortion pill to women only if doctors say their pregnancy puts them at risk

From firebombs to candles

Protesters held a prayer vigil opposing the clinic as the doors opened to the clinic on Thursday. Anti-abortion groups took out full page ads in news papers urging officials to shut the clinic down, citing concern for unborn children. But many religious conservatives, like Brock, decided not to protest publicly.

"It doesn't show much compassion to people who need compassion on the ground. And we'd rather work through the issues and think our way through them and talk to folks face to face, then enter a confrontational battleground scene."

Opponents of the clinic say the opening will lead to more liberal abortion laws and attitudes leading to the breakdown of the family. They’re lobbying officials to ensure the clinic complies with the strict regulations. In an interview with BBC television, Northern Irish Health Minister Edwin Poots promised the clinic would be regulated.

"All clinics should be regulated. Dentists are regulated. So why would you have regulation for the extraction for a tooth, but you wouldn't have regulation for the extraction of a baby?"

Nevertheless, Poots refused to meet with conservatives lobbying for the government to halt the clinic’s opening. Goretti Horagan says even conservative politicians like Poots have accepted a cultural change in Irish society. Horagan is a pro-abortion spokeswoman, and she says health studies from 1979 showed women had 1.5 sexual partners by the age of 21. in 2011, the average was 13 partners.

"Obviously, given these circumstances, women are going to have unwanted pregnancies, and people are beginning to understand that sometimes abortions are needed."

Horagan told DW that the biggest social change can be seen in the nature of the protests - she notes that just 15 years ago, an organization helping Irish women obtain abortions in the UK was firebombed. As the first Irish abortion clinic opened on Thursday, the only flames came from candles lit by protesters, praying across the street.

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