The first abortion center on the island of Ireland opened Thursday in Belfast, sparking protests by conservatives from both the Catholic and Protestant sides of Northern Ireland.
More than 200 pro-life advocates gathered outside the Marie Stopes facility hours ahead of its opening, waving placards reading "Keep Ireland abortion free."
The facility will offer the abortion pill to women who are less than nine weeks pregnant—but only if doctors determine they're at risk of death or long-term health damage from their pregnancy.
That's the law in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where abortion is otherwise illegal.
Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin wrote to lawmakers, who broadly oppose abortion, offering his help if they investigate the center's operations. Larkin said he could order the center to be closed only if evidence emerged of "serious criminal conduct" there.
Pro-life advocates demanded that the facility be shut down regardless, lest it become a beachhead for expanding abortion rights in Northern Ireland, the only corner of the United Kingdom that has not legalized abortion on demand.
"We're in 2012. Women's health is not in danger. Women are not dying because they cannot get abortions," said Bernadette Smyth, the Protestant leader of a Belfast pro-life group called Precious Life.
"For Marie Stopes, this is only a first step," said Liam Gibson from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.
He called on Belfast police to arrest the center's abortion providers and directors if they give women information about abortion services in neighboring Britain, where abortions have been legal since 1967. About 4,000 women from the Republic of Ireland and 1,000 from Northern Ireland travel there annually for abortions.
The Roman Catholic Church, the largest church in both parts of Ireland, this week launched a monthlong campaign to press the Irish government to strengthen its constitutional ban on abortion. It has denounced the Belfast center's opening but shied away from calling for protests.
"We are in the middle of a struggle for the soul of Northern Ireland," said Bishop Donal McKeown, the senior Catholic in Belfast, who didn't attend the protest. He said Marie Stopes directors were seeking "to promote the acceptability of abortion."
Elsewhere in Northern Ireland, a group of teenagers at a Catholic high school announced they would hold daily lunchtime prayers for the facility to be closed.
Sheila Fullerton, a teacher at St. Mary's Grammar School in the town of Magherafelt, said about 40 boys and girls aged 16 and 17 approached her asking to mount the protest. "They feel strongly this is something they must do," she said.
Like almost all Northern Ireland politicians, Health Minister Edwin Poots says he doesn't want the clinic in Belfast but it can operate as long as it observes all existing laws.
"If they break the law, they will be prosecuted," he told lawmakers.