Following the NI Assembly’s decision to uphold the current legislation on abortion, Helen McGurk talks to controversial pro-life campaigner Bernadette Smyth
If Bernadette Smyth wasn’t saving unborn babies’ lives, she’d quite like a job selling lipsticks and cosmetics in a large department store.
“I really could see myself standing behind a beauty counter making people feel good about themselves. That might sound boring to people, but that’s the normal Bernie Smyth,” she says.
Today the high-profile pro-life campaigner and founder of Precious Life, is sitting in the recently opened offices of Stanton Healthcare on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street.
It’s the first clinic the American pro-life organisation has opened outside the United States and it’s just a stone’s throw from the city’s branch of abortion advice centre Marie Stopes, with which it hopes to “compete”.
It has a shabby chic vibe, with plush purple carpet, dove-grey walls and cream panelling. There are plump armchairs, cushions, hearts, flowers and butterfly motifs at every turn. The walls are festooned with stencilled sentimental quotes, including one which gushes: ‘Live every moment, laugh every day, love beyond words’.
We wanted to create a place where a woman can come in and feel at peace, at easeBernie Smyth
Bernie, one of Stanton’s board members, was responsible for this quintessentially girly interior design, which she says is reminiscent of her own home.
“The theme of this centre is ‘All they need is love’,” she smiles.
“We wanted to create a place where a woman can come in and feel at peace, at ease.”
But there are also stark reminders of what this clinic is all about. On a shelf plastic foetuses are lined up at various stages of development. Some, it has to be said, look a little worse for wear.
“When my own children were small they used to play with them like they were dolls,” she laughs.
Stanton Healthcare was founded in 2006 by Christian activist Brandi Swindell and describes its aim as to “provide life-affirming options to abortion-vulnerable women and provide hope to those struggling from the pain of a past abortion”.
It will offer free medical support to pregnant women, including ultrasounds and counselling for those who have had abortions.
The ultrasound room has a heart-shaped plaque on the door with the inscription ‘Lucy’s Place’. It’s named after a child Bernie “saved” from being aborted, by giving money to her parents for a private scan.
She says: “When a woman has an ultrasound and can see her baby on that scan, it makes such a difference.”
“This is ‘Lucy’,” she says, arms embracing the ultrasound machine which has been prettified with a large purple bow.
Bernadette Smyth, 53, founded Precious Life in 1997, with very little money, but a wealth of conviction. Born and bred in Ballymena, her background is in retail.
“Before Precious Life I was just an ordinary little person who loved working in fashion retail and was very happy with that.”
This passion for fashion is no surprise. She’s always immaculately turned out. Today her platinum blonde hair is in her signature up-do, she’s wearing full make-up, a black suit and lots of sparkly jewellery.
“I have always had an interest in fashion and I haven’t lost that, thank God.”
Her mother died when she was just 18 and she’s been married 31 years, with four children; her youngest is 15.
She also has five grandchildren, whom she hopes will take over the Precious Life reins some day.
“I always work round my family’s needs. My priority, first and foremost, is my marriage and my children, and now my grandchildren.”
But like any busy women with a job and family she concedes it can be hard to find a balance.
“You think you’ve got a Saturday or a Sunday to yourself and then you end up out collecting signatures outside churches or on the street. A lot of our work is public awareness, bringing the issue of abortion to the public. It’s relentless.”
She’s from a Catholic background, but says her pro-life stance is borne out of “instinct”, rather than religious doctrine.
“Before I was married I had a few friends who had abortions.”
She cites one young friend aged 17 whose parents, she says, “coerced” her into having an abortion.
Recalling this episode, she looks emotionally unsettled.
“This girl was quite happy to be pregnant and then all of a sudden, the next weekend, the abortion was done and dusted. I could see the effects that was having on her. She was getting drunk at the weekends and looking for a shoulder to cry on. I really don’t think abortion is good for women.”
After this Bernie attended a family conference in Dublin.
“Whilst there I picked up a brochure and in that brochure were the images of baby victims of abortion and that disturbed me greatly. That transformed my life overnight.
“Within a matter of weeks I gave my job up and formed Precious Life out of nothing, out of the few savings that I had.
“I decided that I did not want to live in a society that was destroying unborn children and that I may be only one person, but one person can make a difference.”
She describes her work as a calling, a vocation.
“After a few years I realised I probably would never do anything else because my whole passion was to be a voice for unborn children, to provide alternatives for women.
“For me to hold a baby that was destined to be aborted, there’s no greater joy in this world. To hold that wee person, it’s just something that I get such pleasure out of and I know what I do makes a difference.”
She says Precious Life has saved ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of babies.
“I have all the stories and I am thinking of putting them into a booklet. I have a file of baby pictures, of babies that have been saved, baby scans.”
She recounts anecdotes of women who have been leafleted and decided not to proceed with their abortion.
“When that happens, it’s just mind-blowing.”
Precious Life, which has in the region of 100 members, is funded by donors.
“I’ll send out a quick text or request to like-minded people and they will provide for the girl. They will see the fruit of what they offer.
“Many women choose abortion because they have financial problems or they’ve been rejected by family or partners. I want to provide more than the old arguments of ‘you can’t have an abortion, abortion’s wrong’, I want to ensure that those women are given real choices, real options and real help. In my experience I have found when you do that, eight out of 10 women will continue with pregnancies.”
What is little known is the practical support Precious Life provides to women, whether that is buying a pram and other baby essentials or helping with rent.
“We don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk with that woman. And if we need to we’ll walk the walk through the whole nine months of pregnancy. I’ve done that personally in many, many cases.
“We’ve picked mums up from hospitals with their newborn babies that we’ve helped get them through; we’ve gone to supermarkets, filled their fridges, we’ve paid off their rent arrears to ensure they aren’t evicted.
“When you give someone a hand up it makes all the difference.”
Bernadette Smyth can appear steely and single-minded, a firebrand for her cause, when we see her on television.
“Yes, I have heard it said that I come across this way, but that is because the media continue to put Bernie Smyth on the defensive.”
But she has no issue being friends with someone who is pro-choice, adding: “I’ve always been a caring person, someone who has looked after the underdogs, whether it was stray animals or homeless people or drug addicts.
“If anybody loses out in my life, it’s me, because I am stretching myself to ensure everyone around me is cared for. I could do with a break sometimes. It’s a weary job.”