The anti-abortion crusader unapologetic over her tactics

Following controversy over prayer vigils held by a pro-life organisation outside the premises of a sexual health advice centre, Health Correspondent Lisa Smyth examines the methods used by Precious Life

Members of controversial pro-life organisation Precious Life - standing below graphic images of aborted foetuses - are often found handing out anti-abortion literature to Saturday shoppers in Belfast.

It is clear the organisation wants to shock - and it is an approach that has divided opinion since the body was set up over a decade ago.

Abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland and while many people support the work done by Precious Life, there are many who finds its methods intimidating and inappropriate.

It emerged this week that Precious Life is at the centre of a PSNI investigation following a complaint made by organisations which operate in the same building as the Family Planning Association (FPA).

But Precious Life has hit back at those who have complained, accusing them of ignoring the reality of unborn babies they said have been killed and mutilated by abortion.

"It's sad that they would take the time to write a letter to the newspaper to complain about Precious Life trying to protect unborn children, yet they remain silent about the killing of unborn children being arranged in the office next to them," the organisation said.

It is the latest twist in a row which has seen Mount Charles, the NI Council for Ethnic Minorities, the Belfast Migrant Centre, Gems NI all go to the police to complain about the behaviour of Precious Life members.

It has been claimed any woman of childbearing age is urged by Precious Life volunteers standing outside the building they share with the FPA to think twice before murdering their baby - regardless of the purpose of their visit.

However, the director of Precious Life, Bernadette Smyth, remains unapologetic for the tactics employed by her members who regularly picket organisations and people connected to organisations that may be associated with abortion in some way.

The daily protests outside the FPA premises are the latest in a long list of high profile demonstrations which have ensured Precious Life has remained a major driving force in the anti-abortion movement.

Last year it picketed the first ever all-Ireland conference on abortion and clinical practice held at the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle.

The group also lodged an official complaint with the PSNI, asking it to investigate the legality of the conference.

"What the organisers and speakers at this conference are doing is incitement - encouraging health professionals here to commit the crimes of illegal abortion and child destruction," said Ms Smyth.

Precious Life recruits members, young and old, male or female and of any political denomination, to help it spread their message.

In 1999, Ms Smyth hailed as a victory the closure of an advice centre for pregnant women.

The Ulster Pregnancy Advisory Association gave advice to women who had become pregnant and discussed their options, including abortion, for more than 30 years.

But it closed down after anti-abortion campaigners staged pickets outside counsellors' homes, and its Belfast headquarters were vandalised.

Northern Ireland is the only country in the UK where abortion is illegal. The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 are the main pieces of legislation which still lay down the law on abortion. In Northern Ireland, abortion is only permitted in exceptional circumstances, such as for rape and incest victims.

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