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Abortion debate: Pro-life zealotry of Donald Trump and Bernie Smyth plumbs the depths

By Fionola Meredith

Published 08/04/2016

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in New York (AP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in New York (AP)

What do Donald Trump and Bernie Smyth have in common? It isn't a difficult question. Both the Republican Presidential front-runner and the director of Precious Life are virulently, militantly, implacably opposed to abortion. So much so in fact that they want women who have unlawfully sought terminations to suffer serious penalties.

In a television interview last week Trump declared that women who underwent abortions should be punished if abortion was banned, alongside the doctors who performed the procedures. Later, after an enormous backlash, he said that only the doctors should be punished. But the damage had been done.

Meanwhile, back in our own small benighted corner of the universe Smyth claimed that a 21-year-old woman convicted for taking abortion pills was being let off lightly. The woman was given a three-month jail sentence, suspended for two years.

It was not enough for Smyth that the woman - a girl, really, who was only 19 at the time - is now a convicted criminal. Simply for trying to take charge of her own body and her own life in the absence of the safe, free, humane State assistance to which she should be entitled - and would be if she lived anywhere else in the UK except here.

As the rest of the world looked on in horror, asking how such an appalling situation could arise in a supposedly enlightened, democratic country in the 21st century, Smyth actually wanted more punishment.

For her the criminalisation of a desperate woman, now a mother to a young child of her own, was not sufficient.

Citing a 155-year-old law that states "every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing (…) shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for life", Smyth called for the matter to be referred back to the Court of Appeal in the hope of a harsher sentence. "Precious Life is very shocked that this judge's sentencing was so manifestly lenient in respect of such a serious crime," she said.

Yet both Trump and Smyth, with their distastefully eager demands for punitive action, are seriously out of kilter with the rhetoric of the wider pro-life movement. When Trump made his characteristically brash, opportunistic call for women to be criminalised, two major US anti-abortion groups - March for Life and Susan B. Anthony List - strongly condemned him.

"Mr Trump's comment today is completely out of touch with the pro-life movement and even more with women who have chosen such a sad thing as abortion," said Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life. "Being pro-life means wanting what is best for the mother and the baby. No pro-lifer would want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion. This is against the very nature of what we are about. We invite a woman who has gone down this route to consider paths to healing, not punishment."

Similarly, Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser said: "We have never advocated, in any context, for the punishment of women who undergo abortion. As a convert to the pro-life movement, Mr Trump sees the reality of the horror of abortion. But let us be clear, punishment is solely for the abortionist who profits off of the destruction of one life and the grave wounding of another."

In strict fairness to Trump, he was speaking hypothetically - talking about what he would do if abortion were banned in the US. But it is actually banned to all intents and purposes in Northern Ireland: this is our reality. Which is why we get heartbreaking scenarios like this one, which expose the true anti-choice, authoritarian nature of the local pro-life lobby.

Compassion is a word often used by Precious Life. There is much talk of compassion and love for both the woman and the unborn child. It vehemently denies that its anti-abortion campaign is in any sense a war on women.

But I'm not hearing any love in Precious Life's attitude to this poor girl, who couldn't afford the money to go to England and was reported to the police by her housemates when they found the sad remains of her short pregnancy in the bin. I'm not hearing any words of healing, support and understanding.

What will satisfy these heartless zealots - "penal servitude for life", like the old law says? Would that be sufficient punishment to appease them?

Attorney General John Larkin

On 29th January we published an article under the headline 'No Justice from David Ford when it comes to abortion', which referred to the Attorney General, John Larkin. We accept that any suggestion that the Attorney General is inappropriately and improperly motivated by his personal beliefs when exercising his public duties is entirely incorrect and we are happy to make this clear and apologise to Mr Larkin for any misunderstanding.

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