BELFAST — The first abortion clinic on the island of Ireland opened Thursday in downtown Belfast, unleashing angry protests on the street and uniting Catholic and Protestant politicians in calls to investigate the new facility.
The clinic, run by the British family planning charity Marie Stopes, will be permitted to provide abortions only in exceptional circumstances to women less than nine weeks pregnant.
But the opening caught Northern Ireland’s socially conservative politicians off guard, and they vowed to launch an investigation into how the clinic operates. About 400 protesters who lined the sidewalk outside the facility all day said they were certain that public pressure would force authorities to shut it.
‘‘I expect the heads of government to run Marie Stopes out of Northern Ireland,’’ the protest leader, Bernadette Smyth of the pressure group Precious Life, told supporters through a bullhorn. ‘‘Those who have come . . . storm heaven with your prayers!’’
Abortion is one of few issues that unite Northern Ireland, a predominantly Protestant corner of the United Kingdom, and the mostly Catholic Republic of Ireland. Both jurisdictions keep abortion outlawed except in cases where doctors deem the woman’s life at risk from continued pregnancy.
Both effectively export the controversy to Britain, where abortion on demand has been legal since 1967. An estimated 4,000 women annually from the Irish Republic, and 1,000 from Northern Ireland, travel there for abortions, often lying to family, friends, and colleagues about their absence.
Inside the clinic Thursday, doctors and counselors dealt with several women in crisis pregnancies and were deluged with calls from women seeking appointments.
Outside, protesters displayed posters with graphic pictures of aborted fetuses, sang hymns, and sparred verbally with passing pedestrians who made clear they want liberalized access to abortion in Northern Ireland. Protesters didn’t directly heckle people entering or leaving the clinic, which is inside a much larger building with several offices.
Directors of Marie Stopes emphasized they would comply fully with Northern Ireland’s law permitting abortions only when the woman’s life or long-term health is endangered. They said that such exceptional abortions are already carried out in secrecy in Northern Ireland hospitals, between 30 and 50 a year. Many more eligible women travel to Britain rather than confront stern antiabortion attitudes at home.
Tracey McNeill, director of Marie Stopes clinics across the United Kingdom, said some of the nearly 1,000 women who travel each year to Britain for abortions ‘‘would have been entitled to have that care within Northern Ireland, but they didn’t know where to go, they didn’t know who to talk to.’’
The Belfast clinic, she said, ‘‘is not about increasing the number of terminations of pregnancies in Northern Ireland. It’s about providing it to that small number of people who will be eligible for it within their own country.’’