Protesters outside abortion clinic
Around 200 protesters have gathered outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast (pic @chrislindsay_)

Protesters have gathered outside the first private abortion clinic to open in Northern Ireland.

About 200 pro-life demonstrators picketed the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast clinic to rally against its opening. Police erected crowd-control barriers.

Precious Life, which organised the protest, wrote on its Facebook page: "The day has arrived. Keep the prayers going please. See you today, if you can make it.

"Bring your wet gear. Weather's dreadful. (Please don't let that put you off coming. We need you.)"

Abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland and termination is allowed only if the pregnancy is deemed to pose a threat to the mother's life.

The Marie Stopes clinic will provide the abortion pill to women who are less than nine weeks pregnant if a doctor decides their health is at risk from their pregnancy.

Between 30 and 40 abortions are carried out in Northern Ireland every year. More than 1,000 women travelled to the UK in 2011 alone to have the procedure.

The protesters claim that the clinic wants to widen access to abortion but Marie Stopes management denies this allegation.

Dawn Purvis, programme director at Marie Stopes Northern Ireland, said: "We will be able to meet their family planning and sexual health needs in a way that has not been seen here before.

"It is hoped that by providing medical abortion up to nine weeks of pregnancy, the Marie Stopes facility will reduce the number of women who are forced to travel to England while sick and distressed."

Darinka Aleksic, Abortion Rights campaign co-ordinator, added: "The fight for Northern Irish women to have the same rights as women in England, Scotland and Wales has a long way to go. But this is a real step forward."

Marie Stopes expected protesters when the centre opened and hired security staff. According to the Guardian, the police said that media images of the faces of anyone going in or out of the clinic should be pixellated to protect their human rights.

ProLife Alliance said the clinic was "neither welcome nor necessary" as the health needs of Northern Ireland citizens was adequately covered by the NHS.

Bernadette Smyth, director of Precious Life, said abortion in Northern Ireland was punishable by life imprisonment. They would demand that the the law was "rigorously enforced".

"Our unborn children must be protected from the hands of Marie Stopes International, who make millions of pounds every year by killing unborn children," she said.

"This shows the desperation of the pro-abortion movement who are attempting to bypass our government and legal system and perform abortions in Northern Ireland."