Precious Life defends 'misleading' 300,000 abortion petition

Precious Life director Bernie Smyth joins DUP MLA Jim Wells during the presentation of what was claimed to be the "largest ever" petition presented in NI. DUP/PA Wire
Paul Ainsworth

THE director of a pro-life group has defended a recent petition that used signatures up to 14 years old to protest against current considerations to change abortion law.

The signatures of 300,000 people were said to make up the “largest petition ever received” when boxes were brought to Stormont by anti-abortion campaigners Precious Life in November.

Northern Ireland's restrictive abortion laws are a highly divisive issue, with vocal advocates on both sides of the debate. At present, terminations are only permitted when there is a serious risk to the health of the mother.

A 45,000-strong online petition advocating a law change which was compiled by Amnesty International had been presented to the Assembly weeks earlier.

DUP MLA Jim Wells welcomed the petition at the time and told the Assembly of its significance as a working group was beginning to examine laws on abortion laws in the case of fatal foetal abnormality.

The Assembly's working group is due to present a paper to the executive in early January.

Precious Life claimed their collection of signatures represented the “voice of the people of Northern Ireland”.

However, justice minister Claire Sugden – whose department staff accepted the petition - has said the signatures were from nine separate campaigns gathered since 2001, with none relating directly to the termination of pregnancy for fatal foetal abnormality.

None of the signatures were signed later than September 2014, and the minister added: "There were also addresses identified in the material provided which were not in Northern Ireland."

The minister said the signatures were contained in 47 boxes, rather than the 57 claimed by Mr Wells.

Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said this showed the petition was “misleading".

She continued: “How many of these signatories for one campaign realised their names would be added to other campaigns they may not support? How many are from outside Northern Ireland?

No decision has yet been taken.

"At best, this campaign is highly misleading."

However Precious Life director Bernie Smyth told the Irish News that the reason for the reduced number of boxes was that the “bottom fell out” of several in the process of transferring them.

“We said these were an accumulation of campaigns, and in fact, the signature total was closer to 400,000,” she said, adding that the figure was “rounded off” to 300,000.

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