Response to 'Dawn Purvis changed the face of the abortion debate in Northern Ireland. So why is she calling it a day?' (The Guardian, Friday 10th April 2015)

In Response to ‘Dawn Purvis changed the face of the abortion debate in Northern Ireland. So why is she calling it a day?’ (The Guardian, Friday 10th April 2015)   Link to article at bottom of page


by Caitriona Forde

Susanna Rustin’s scathing article is dripping with disdain for the pro-life movement. It feeds nothing but a devious misunderstanding of the case concerning Bernadette Smyth and Dawn Purvis and pitiful ignorance of the law on abortion in Northern Ireland.

What really happened?

On the 9th January 2014, as Dawn Purvis was leaving the Marie Stopes building a pro-life counsellor engaged her in conversation. Bernadette Smyth stood idly by, speaking with another counsellor. Following Dawn Purvis’ performance of raising her hand and ordering the counsellor to stop harassing her, to stop harassing her, to stop harassing her, Mrs Smyth glanced over her shoulder and said frivolously, ‘You ain’t seen harassment yet, darling!’

On the 13th February 2014, Mrs Smyth and a counsellor were standing praying by the door to the Marie Stopes building. Dawn Purvis’ son and his female friend arrived to ‘pick up frozen food’. Unaware of this set-up, as Dawn Purvis’ son and his friend were leaving, the counsellor started to walk with and talk to the female friend, thinking she was a Marie Stopes ‘client’. To correct Breedagh Hughes, Dawn Purvis’ son was not ‘targeted’. No one approached her son. Rather, the counsellor spoke to the girl. Standing in the corridor where she thought she was hidden from the CCTV camera, Dawn Purvis pointed her finger and snarled at Mrs Smyth. On seeing this through the glass door, Mrs Smyth laughed.


Mrs Smyth may not have walked with and talked to the female friend, but I suppose a laugh just had to do. I imagine Dawn Purvis impatiently waiting as the lift took her to the eighth floor to her office where she excitedly phoned the police to tell them they finally ‘got’ the glamorous Mrs Smyth. Cue the evil laugh.    

The two ‘incidents of harassment’ complained of did not involve any bad language by Mrs Smyth, any attempt to make contact with Dawn Purvis, any telephone calls, text messages or emails, any appearance at her home, or any attempt to follow her. According to Susanna Rustin’s article, Dawn Purvis ‘feared for her life’ and ‘feared for her personal safety’. Considering Dawn Purvis was the former head of the PUP which has links with the UVF, her former relations with the paramilitary group suggest that her claimed reaction to Mrs Smyth’s frivolous comment and laugh is nothing more than a political cry to rally the sympathy vote. 

Susanna Rustin strategically included a trailer of the ‘After Tiller’ documentary in her article, supposedly to help illustrate Dawn Purvis’ ‘worries about the violence associated with the most extreme US anti-abortion groups’. Dawn Purvis lied that she ‘had seen Smyth meeting US anti-abortion campaigners in the film’. To falsely associate Mrs Smyth with a documentary about an American late-term abortionist who was murdered by a pro-life activist and to insinuate that she or ‘somebody associated with or inspired by’ ‘these people’ holding prayer vigils outside the Marie Stopes building would ‘carry out an act of violence’ is desperate and despicable.  

The law on abortion in Northern Ireland

Susanna Rustin’s shocking ignorance of the law on abortion in Northern Ireland is pitiful and shameful for a reporter.

‘Abortion is not illegal in Northern Ireland, as often used to be said, and has now mostly stopped being said, partly thanks to Marie Stopes’ decision to open a clinic here.’

If the legality or illegality of an act depends on what people say, perhaps it is only a matter of time before the ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ mentality takes hold and the understanding of rape as an horrific act of violence against women, something illegal, is no longer understood as such but instead accepted and understood as making love.

Abortion is in fact illegal in Northern Ireland. Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 govern the crime of ‘illegal abortion’ and protect the unborn child from conception to full term. Section 25 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 governs the crime of ‘child destruction’ and specifically protects the unborn child ‘capable of being born alive’ from being deliberately destroyed. These statutes overlap and make it a criminal offence to abort an unborn child from conception to birth. As with other criminal offences, when seen in its proper criminal context, it is incorrect to assume there are automatic grounds for ‘legal abortion’, but rather there is a defence which may be raised in an extreme case.

There is a need to distinguish between the different defences to illegal abortion and child destruction:

In R v Bourne [1938] the judge stated that, in his opinion, the defence to child destruction, that the abortion was ‘done in good faith for the purpose only of preserving the life of the mother’, could be extended to the crime of illegal abortion and that this defence to illegal abortion could be extended to include the physical or mental health of the mother. The defence to child destruction is much narrower than the defence to illegal abortion as the ruling in R v Bourne does not apply to child destruction directly.

Where is the evidence that any abortion pill distributed at the Marie Stopes centre or any of the ‘51 terminations carried out on the NHS’ is legal? Where is the evidence that the abortion was necessary to save the life of the mother or to prevent a real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health?

Abortion should not be understood as a ‘health service’. It is in fact, the deliberate killing of an unborn child and a criminal offence in Northern Ireland. In the interests of a democratic society, and the protection of our most vulnerable and defenceless citizens, Marie Stopes and the healthcare professionals lurking in the shadow of secrecy need to be held accountable to the criminal law.

‘Ignorance breeds hatred and hatred can breed violence’

Dawn Purvis describes the calm, non-intrusive and non-confrontational presence of volunteers holding prayer vigils, standing with boards displaying the development of the unborn child and the horrific reality of abortion as vile. She accuses the counsellors of ‘shouting’ at Marie Stopes’ clients and ‘public shaming’. Counsellors do not shout at or shame women with unplanned pregnancies, but are there to offer them valuable information on abortion and to provide them with any help and support they need. The onslaught of rowdy escorts shoving women up the street, jumping from side to side with arms outstretched and shouting over the imploring voice of the counsellor is a spectacle, all in the name of boosting Marie Stopes’ income.

Embedded in the lies and deceit of Susanna Rustin’s article is one element of truth: that ‘ignorance breeds hatred and hatred can breed violence.’ As Dawn Purvis said, ‘that’s the kind of society [she] grew up in’ and she is still steeped in that same hatred and violence. Ignorance of the humanity of the unborn child breeds contempt for those who dare to be a voice for the voiceless, contempt for the images of the developing unborn child in the womb of her mother, and even contempt for the little model of a ten week old unborn child that could fit in the palm of your hand. Such ignorance and contempt belittles the unborn child to a mere ‘product of conception’, ‘tissue’, a ‘blob of cells’, a ‘foetus’. When the vulnerable and defenceless unborn child is stripped of her humanity, it is much easier for Marie Stopes to convince a ‘client’ that her unborn child can be torn from her womb and flushed down a toilet.

Finally, the title of Susanna Rustin’s article reads that ‘Dawn Purvis changed the face of the abortion debate in Northern Ireland. So why is she calling it a day?’

I am a firm believer in physiognomy; that who you are on the inside is reflected on the outside. Anyone who knows Bernadette Smyth knows how kind she is to everyone she meets. I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of women who turned to Bernadette Smyth when they were in the depths of panic and despair and, months later, returned to the office to introduce their little baby, beaming with joy. Whatever a young woman needs to overcome her fears and to choose life for her little baby, Bernadette Smyth is always there for her.

Abortion is a battle between light and darkness and the goodness in Bernadette Smyth’s heart shines through. I am grateful that Bernadette Smyth is the face of the pro-life movement in Northern Ireland, and I am sure countless mothers and their babies are too. I hope she never calls it a day.

‘Dawn Purvis changed the face of the abortion debate in Northern Ireland. So why is she calling it a day?’ (The Guardian, Friday 10th April 2015)

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