Purvis resigns as CEO of Stopes abortion clinic

Dawn Purvis, outgoing programme director with Marie Stopes Northern Ireland.
Dawn Purvis, outgoing programme director with Marie Stopes Northern Ireland.

The chief executive of Northern Ireland’s first abortion clinic, Dawn Purvis, is stepping down after two-and-a-half years at the helm.

The former PUP leader helped establish the first Marie Stopes clinic in the Province, but says that the intensity of daily protests at her office since its opening have been challenging.

Last Friday there were 30 protestors and yesterday about 12, she told the News Letter.

“It is not the amount of them – it is their behaviour. They are still harassing women on their way in with plastic foetuses and telling them not to come in.

“The former part of last year was also quite tough with the harassment and court case,” she added.

Anti-abortion campaigner Bernie Smyth was found guilty of harassing Ms Purvis in November and sentenced to 100 hours of community service.

However Ms Purvis describes her time as CEO as “absolutely amazing” and cites her achievements as seeing the clinic established and helping change the nature of the abortion debate here.

She rejects any suggestion that some anti-abortion campaigners might see her resignation after two-and-a-half years as some sort of victory.

“I find it difficult to comprehend that in light of what we have achieved,” she said.

The nature of the abortion debate in Northern Ireland has changed, she says, and the number of women speaking out in favour of abortion has increased and the Department of Justice has held a consultation on the legislation.

“I have also been delighted to start a volunteer escort service to guide women into the centre safely and passed any abuse.”

She will continue to support the clinic as a member of its advisory board.

The number of women the clinic saw in 2014 was four times as many as in 2013, she said, and has so far increased again in 2015. She declined to give specific figures for “reasons of confidentiality”.

Bernie Smyth’s appeal against her harassment conviction is being heard on May 11.

“It is a re-run of the original. I don’t think anyone is looking forward to it but I uphold her right to an appeal.”

Ms Purvis will again be involved in the case as a witness.

“I take great comfort from the judge’s words in the first hearing. He said her behaviour was unacceptable and to stop anyone as they come into the clinic is absolutely wrong.”

The former MLA told the Guardian yesterday: “I suppose I did fear for my life.”

As the protestors grew more vociferous she became afraid. “It was just constant,” she said, “the looks of hatred in their faces.”

She added: “My fear was of violence. I wasn’t sleeping, I had changed my route to work, I was getting friends to call and meet me when I finished in the evening, I was getting taxis more often than walking.

“I didn’t necessarily believe these people themselves were going to carry out an act of violence, but maybe somebody associated with or inspired by them.”

Ms Purvis told the News Letter that harassment of women coming into the clinic continues but that police cannot act unless a victim makes a formal complaint.

As for a return to politics she is not ruling it out. “Never say never,” she says. “I am open minded looking at what opportunities there are and taking a few weeks off. I am really looking forward to my next challenge.”