Pro-choice supporters warn of free-for-all outside abortion clinic after harassment charges dropped
Pro-choice supporters have warned of a "free-for-all" outside an abortion clinic after the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) dropped charges of harassment against anti-abortion protesters.
The Family Planning Association and Marie Stopes have said they are concerned by a decision by the PPS not to proceed with harassment charges against three Precious Life campaigners, including the organisation's boss Bernadette Smyth.
The PSNI is also reviewing harassment orders that were served on campaigners outside the Marie Stopes private clinic in Belfast.
Ms Smyth and two of her colleagues, Alicea Brennan and Claire Brennan, were facing harassment-related charges for protests and vigils outside the Great Victoria Street clinic.
However, following a recent successful appeal by Ms Smyth against a conviction of harassing a former Marie Stopes clinic director, the PPS has decided not to pursue prosecutions against the three women.
Ms Smyth has now called for more people to join the pro-life protests outside the Marie Stopes clinic and the Family Planning Association building.
"We are delighted to finally be vindicated. There was a campaign against us wrongly portraying what we were doing. We were never harassing people. Now we can continue doing what we have been doing for 18 years - being a voice for the unborn child - without threat of arrest," said Ms Smyth.
She added: "Now I am hopeful that more and more people will become involved in our campaign. We have the right to proactively reach out to women outside Marie Stopes and elsewhere without threat of arrest or criminal charges. It is amazing news for us."
Ms Smyth said that the past 18 months had been a "living nightmare for all of us and we thank God that it is finally over and for helping us through this horrible ordeal".
The women's' solicitor Aiden Carlin added: "Our latest series of acquittals is vital to those who take a stand against abortion in Northern Ireland. Bernie Smyth, Alicea Brennan and Claire Brennan are very highly respected Christians who have tirelessly campaigned on behalf of the unborn for many years. They totally refuted these ridiculous allegations and have been completely vindicated."
However, Heather Low, counselling services co-ordinator at the Family Planning Association, warned that the PPS U-turn could now "lead to a free-for-all" at clinics. "People have a right to protest, but this is about people being able to freely move in and out of the building," said Ms Low.
"Where do you draw the line? When do you say something is acceptable and something is not acceptable? Women are being chased down the streets, they are being called murderers, they are being followed to their cars." she added. Genevieve Edwards, Marie Stopes UK's director of policy, said there is still a minority of people who confront women and staff at the Belfast clinic.
"Our Belfast clinic provides women with legal healthcare, yet there is still a tiny minority who feel it is acceptable to intimidate women and the staff that provide their care.
"It isn't, and we will never hesitate to report incidents of threatening or abusive behaviour against the women in our care to the authorities," she said.
Ms Edwards added: "One in three women in the UK will need an abortion in their lifetime and we should be supporting them to make whatever choice is right for them, not adding to their distress.
"Our mission is 'children by choice, not chance' and we will continue to do everything in our power to safeguard the well-being of women using our services and ensure they can do so free from judgement and intimidation."
Pro-life campaigners have staged protests and handed out graphic leaflets at the clinic since it opened on Belfast's Great Victoria Street in October 2012.
Protests are also held outside the Family Planning Association's building during their unplanned pregnancy clinics.
Pro-life campaigners have been protesting outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast since it opened its doors in 2012. Based at Great Vicitoria Street it is the first private clinic to offer abortions in Northern Ireland, within the current legal framework. Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, is not covered by the Abortion Act. Abortions can be carried out only to preserve the life of the mother or if continuing the pregnancy would have other serious, permanent physical or mental health effects.