Belfast judge’s message to anti-choice protesters: Stop harassing women

"I do not feel it is appropriate for anyone to be stopped outside this clinc in any form, shape or fashion"

Published November 19, 2014 6:39PM (EST)

  (AP/Bill Sikes)
(AP/Bill Sikes)

One of Ireland’s most prominent anti-choice activists has been found guilty of harassing the head of a Belfast clinic. Precious Life director Bernadette Smyth has been fined for what the judge called “vicious and malicious” harassment and ordered to stay away from the Marie Stopes clinic.

During one confrontation with Smyth, clinic head Dawn Purvis said she put her hands up and asked that the protesters stop harassing her. Smyth replied, “You ain’t seen harassment yet, darling.”

After leveling the penalty, Deputy District Judge Chris Holmes condemned protests outside the clinic as patient harassment and an invasion of privacy.

“I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not feel it is appropriate for anyone to be stopped outside this clinic in any form, shape or fashion and questioned either as to their identity or why they are going in there and being forced to involve themselves in conversation at times when they are almost certainly going to be stressed and very possibly distressed,” he said.

Compare Holmes’ view of clinic protesters with the recent Supreme Court ruling on buffer zones and you’ll notice, um, a difference in how these interactions are characterized. Whereas Holmes views protesters as obstructing patients’ access to a medical facility and subjecting them to invasive questions and intimidation about the nature of their private medical decisions, Chief Justice John Roberts believes sidewalks outside clinics are a really great place to trade ideas.

"It is no accident that public streets and sidewalks have developed as venues for the exchange of ideas," Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. (The court acted unanimously, but Scalia and Alito both wrote separate concurring opinions.) "Even today, they remain one of the few places where a speaker can be confident that he is not simply preaching to the choir. With respect to other means of communication, an individual confronted with an uncomfortable message can always turn the page, change the channel, or leave the Web site.”

When the McCullen decision came down this summer, I talked to doctors and clinic escorts about the “exchange of ideas” happening outside their clinics. They had a less rosy view than Roberts.

“[W]hen patients come into my clinic, they’re very stressed about the fact that that contact was forced on them,” Dr. Cheryl Chastine, a provider in Wichita, Kansas, told me. “ I think that if they chose to make that contact, to seek those people out and talk to them, that would be one thing. But they come to the clinic knowing that they don’t want to speak to a picketer, and yet they have to go directly past them, and it makes them angry and upset and ashamed.”

“The patients who come to see me are carrying a tremendous emotional burden to start with, especially my patients who are coming there to end a desired pregnancy because of some fetal catastrophe or their own medical issues,” said Dr. Warren Hern, a provider in Boulder, Colorado.

“For those women, they don’t want to be here and have an abortion; they want to have a baby. And they’re there in tremendous pain because of that,” he explained. “And so the antiabortion people come and harass these patients and their families, in spite of the fact that they are in tremendous pain and emotional anguish. It’s unsupportable, it’s indecent, it’s indefensible.”

According to the Guardian, lawyers for Smyth plan to appeal the decision.

h/t Robin Marty

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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