Bernadette Smyth, a Belfast mother of four and characterized by her legal team as a “tireless defender of the unborn for 17 years,” immediately appealed Wednesday after she was sentenced in the case alleging she harassed the head of Northern Ireland’s Marie Stopes abortion facility. The court handed her a £2,000-fine, 100 hours of community service, and a five-year restraining order.
The abortion facility director, Dawn Purvis, a former leader of a radical unionist party, claimed she was intimidated by Smyth’s comments and “witchy” laughter.
Smyth’s lawyer, Aiden Carlin, said in a news release that because of Smyth’s appeal, “the sentence has no affect in the meantime.” This frees Smyth, who is founder of the Precious Life pro-life group, to return to the vigil she has kept outside the abortion facility since its establishment in 2012.
“Today marks another step towards justice for Bernadette Smyth who was wrongly convicted of harassment on 19th November 14,” declared the same release that announced the appeal. Carlin cited Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which “provides that a person has a right to manifest his religion through teaching,” and Article 11, which protects freedom of assembly.
Purvis, the former head of the Progressive Unionist Party, a left-wing group advocating Northern Ireland’s continued political union with Britain, complained that Smyth had harassed her on two occasions, both captured on closed circuit surveillance footage, while Smyth’s defence lawyers maintained Purvis had provoked Smyth on both occasions with an eye to the law against stalking.
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In the first incident in January, Purvis claims that Smyth called out to her when she was leaving the abortion facility, saying “May God forgive you.” She challenged Smyth, who showed her a plastic fetal model and asked, “Don’t you run an abortion clinic?” and “Don’t you cut off the heads of babies?” Purvis then told Smyth to stop harassing her, whereupon Smyth said, “You ain’t seen harassment yet, darling,” in what Purvis said was an American drawl.
A month later, in an incident involving Purvis’ son and a friend, the focus was on Smyth’s “cackle,” which the prosecutor described as “witchy.” Purvis testified both incidents were intimidating. But Smyth said her comment about harassment was a joke and her laughter was a nervous reaction to Purvis, who was “growling” at her through the clinic door. By this time she had been served by police with a warning and knew a second harassment complaint would provoke a charge.
Smyth denied any intention to intimidate. “I will never, ever be back in the court under these charges again because I have never broke the law or intended to harass another human being, and that includes Dawn Purvis.” Her presence outside the clinic, she testified, was to save unborn babies and to protect couples and young women from the consequences of abortion.
The judge did not believe her, saying, “To say ‘You ain't seen harassment yet, darling' in whatever accent, is a threat.”
Smyth’s lawyer said she now “invites Christians everywhere to follow the next stage of her landmark case which has the potential to shape how the law is interpreted and applied in the future.”
Support for Smyth came from the Life Institute, a pro-life organization in the Republic of Ireland. Spokesperson Niamh Uí Bhriain called the conviction a “miscarriage of justice” and added the case “should have been thrown out of court from the beginning.”
Ui Bhriain noted that Smyth never approached Purvis (in fact, Purvis approached Smyth) and her conduct outside the abortion clinic was, as her lawyer stated, always “orderly, routine, peaceful, non-intrusive, non-obstructive, dignified and respectful of others.”
“We will stand 100% with Bernadette as she seeks to have this unfair and unjust charge and sentence overturned,” said Uí Bhriain.