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Thousands of campaigners from both sides of Ireland’s emotive abortion debate have paraded through the streets of Belfast to highlight their opposing positions on the issue.
More than 1,000 people took party in the Rally for Choice, organised by pro-choice campaigners, and held aloft banners saying ‘I love Marie Stopes’, ‘Repeal the eighth’ and ‘abortion rights now’.
The theme for the 10th annual All-Ireland Rally for Life, which took place after and attracted more than 2,000 people, was ‘personhood begins at conception’.
Currently, an abortion is only permitted in the Republic of Ireland when a woman’s life is at risk and in Northern Ireland in the same circumstances, plus if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.
Women can face jail time if they access an abortion, something Patrick Corrigan from Amnesty International says makes laws on both parts of the island some of the most “restrictive and punitive in Europe”.
Emma Gallen from the Belfast Feminist Network and Alliance for Choice was on the organising committee for the Rally for Choice which assembled at Buoy Park in the Cathedral Quarter of the city.
“We are here to point out there is a large amount of people across Northern Ireland who think the abortion laws need to be changed and that when the UN tells the Republic of Ireland and the UK that the laws across the island of Ireland are unjust and inhumane and breaches human rights, we should probably listen to that,” she said.
‘A civilised society’
Green Party MLA Clare Bailey said: “We can no longer criminalise women for health care services and call ourselves a civilised society”.
Emma Waszak from the Abortion Rights Campaign in Dublin travelled to Belfast to “show solidarity with people in the North”.
She added: “We are calling on abortion legislation in the North and repealing the eighth in the south. We want abortion to be free, safe and legal.”
Workers’ Party spokeswoman for north Belfast, Gemma Weir, said: “The law is so outdated. It is so anti-women. Women should have the right to make choices over their own bodies no matter what that decision is.”
As the pro-choice demonstration was making its way along Royal Avenue to City Hall Julie Tweed from Ballymena, Co Antrim was shouting “scumbags” at the marchers because she says “that’s what they are”.
“I think it is disgusting,” she said.
“Women in crisis pregnancy don’t need to be directed to somewhere where they are going to kill their child.”
At the anti-abortion rally at Custom House Square Bernadette Smyth, the director of Belfast-based Precious Life, said their is mounting pressure on Stormont and the Dáil to extend abortion rights and campaigners will resist any such moves.
“This is a springboard for campaigns we will take forward over the next two months to do everything in out power through our government representatives here in Northern Ireland to ensure that abortion is never legalised in any circumstances,” she said.
“No compromise. Personhood begins at conception.”
Activists from the Republic travelled up by coach from places including Dublin, Wexford, Donegal, Westmeath and Cavan to show support for the anti-abortion movement in the North.
Mary Kelly from Longford said she was “pushed into having an abortion years ago but I didn’t do it and today I have an engineer because of it”.
She added: “No baby ever killed a mother. Every baby is precious. Every life is precious from the moment of conception and that has to be recognised.”
Marian Murphy from Co Kildare said: “There is a fundamental right to life. Nowadays we are dehumanising the womb and also the fact that legal abortion is covering up sexual abuse and rape is a scandal. It is not the ideologies of the flower power 60s have painted it out to be.”
Fr Damian McCann from Glengormley, Co Antrim was in attendance to “show solidarity with all those supporting pro-life causes”.
On abortion in the cases of pregnancy as a result of rape he said: “Life is sacred and we have to do what we can to support it. I don’t see how destroying the life of a child is going to make that situation any better.”