Belfast Telegraph

Legal case places abortion debate firmly in the spotlight

By Amanda Ferguson

The court case against Bernie Smyth alleging harassment of former MLA Dawn Purvis has thrown the spotlight on one of the most emotive issues to divide Northern Ireland – abortion.

Ms Smyth's lawyer Conor O'Kane told a court in Belfast yesterday that Ms Purvis and his client are "to put it crudely – enemies".

"She's the head honcho of Precious Life and that's why you are after her," he said.

Ms Purvis denies this and told the court she has been subjected to a "barrage of abuse" from Precious Life campaigners since quitting politics and taking up the role of programme director at Marie Stopes.

Unlike the rest of the UK, abortion is only allowed in very limited circumstances in Northern Ireland. Abortions can only be performed to save a woman's life, or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

This has resulted in tens of thousands of women being forced to travel to the mainland, which is covered by the 1967 Abortion Act, to access a termination. Pro-choice campaigners believe women faced with a crisis pregnancy should have the right to decide what happens to their own body.

On the flip side of the argument, anti-abortion or pro-life campaigners, as they call themselves, believe terminations are wrong under any circumstances and do not want to see any action that would liberalise abortion law. Now this complex and sensitive court case involving two high profile women has once again ignited debate on this issue.

But as District Judge Chris Holmes said in court yesterday after some emotive language was used, he is not allowing this case to be about the pro-choice, anti-abortion debate.

He said he simply has to determine if harassment took place.

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