Ann Donald meets the strong-willed anti-abortionist who is about to export direct action across the Irish Sea

Bernadette Smyth looks innocuous. Aged 35, the Ballymena housewife and Catholic mother of three is pretty. She has long bleached-blonde hair, is impeccably dressed in fashionable trouser suit and exhibits the unflawed make-up of an Avon lady. Cuticled talons that jab the air during conversation are her only visible concession to excess. Ms Smyth's exterior is innocuous but her viewpoint on abortion is not.

Two years ago while on a shopping trip to Dublin, Ms Smyth met a group of anti-

abortion protesters leafleting on the street. They changed both her mind as a pro-choice supporter and her life. (Abortion is still illegal in Eire and permitted under very exceptional circumstances in Northern Ireland, which is not covered by the 1967 Abortion Act). She returned home, shocked, to her husband and invited a few friends round. Together they read anti-abortion literature, looked at graphic post-cards of aborted foetuses and watched two videos - The Silent Scream and The Hard Truth. The latter showed six-minute clips of various abortions of babies found outside American abortion clinics. ''We all thought, 'My goodness me! Is this what they're doing to babies?' '' she recalls. ''How can I live with the thought that in the UK there are 600 babies dying daily due to women's ignorance, apathy, and lack of support for the women?''

The revelation was such, Smyth sat down her three children and showed them the pictures of aborted foetuses. In fact, her eldest daughter, 13-year-old Danielle, decided to join Precious Life this year, and Smyth's husband is secretary. ''Precious Life is my life now,'' she admits.

Amid the calm and polished interior of Belfast's Europa Hotel, the expectant mother of baby No 4 is similarly calm and polished. Very articulately she explains her switch from

supervisor of a retail clothing chain to founder of Precious Life. The controversial, non-denominational, Northern

Irish anti-abortion group

launches its affiliate Scottish branch tomorrow in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Precious Life has taken centre stage because Smyth and the 2000 supporters on her mailing list (coincidentally, the same number of women who are estimated to travel from the province to the mainland every year for an abortion) believe that ''direct action'' is imperative in the anti-abortion campaign. Following the example of radical American anti-abortion groups, their militant tactics have, says Smyth, ''bypassed the media and the authorities'' to stop what she calls ''the Holocaust that has been happening since1967''.

In March this year they organised 300 posters and billboards that appeared on buses throughout Northern Ireland featuring foetuses in the womb, emblazoned with the message ''Death Threat''. Smyth condemns ''violence of any kind'' but condones the picketing of family planning counsellors' homes and the intimidatory chanting and harassment of staff outside the likes of Ulster Pregnancy Advisory Association - until it burnt down.

However, it is Precious Life's growing links with male-led anti-abortion groups that has caused most consternation in the pro-choice and even pro-life ranks. Father Tom Connolly, spokesperson for the Catholic Church in Scotland, said: ''I'd rather give them a bodyswerve and distance ourselves from any intimidatory acts.'' Justin Barrett's Youth Defence in Dublin, and Joseph Scheidler's Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League - with whom Precious Life have shared a platform - had campaigners occupying a Dublin family planning clinic in March this year. Owing to his direct action in America, Scheidler now has a criminal record as does Jim Dowson, who is hoping to expand the affiliate group, Precious Life Scotland. How does this square with

Precious Life's professed non-violent stance?

''Joseph is not guilty of anything but saving women and unborn babies from abortion,'' replies Smyth confidently. ''Jim has had a few clashes with the law concerning some fisticuffs in the past but that is neither here not there. He now knows we do not believe in breaking the law.''

Why the distressing pictures and placards of aborted foetuses? ''Because they are the truth. Abortion is the world's best-kept secret. Most women have abortions because, basically, they don't have a clue.''

So you work from the premise that a woman who has an abortion is making an uninformed choice? ''A woman makes that decision in a panic. Don't forget, women don't have abortions because they choose to. This big world that says it's a woman's right to choose is wrong. Women don't choose. They are pressurised by a boyfriend or parents or by careers.''

This pre-supposes women are not capable of a rational decision. As a self-confessed ''100% feminist'' why don't you accept the women who having weighed up their situation arrive at the decision to proceed with an abortion? ''Most women are not informed about abortion. They don't know! They don't know! From my experience of crisis pregnancy advice, the women are often hysterical in this situation.''

Is abortion acceptable in cases of rape? ''We see rape as traumatising, a violation of a woman's body. To offer that woman an abortion is a second violation to her body. The child should not suffer for the sins of the father.''

What right do you have to impose your morality on others? ''A woman has the right to do with her body as she likes but not with another person's body.'' Smyth draws a bizarre analogy of a rapist imposing his morality by raping me.

Ibelieve that at the very least Bernadette Smyth is misguided. At worse, dangerous. Precious Life's professed mission to educate women about the pros and cons of both contraception and abortion and their effect upon women's health would be commendable were it not so disturbingly blinkered by three central Precious Life beliefs that do not permit any complicated permutation of the human condition other than black or white.

First, that the moment of conception constitutes a person and the rights inherent to a fully formed human being who can live independently outwith the womb. Secondly, a woman has no rights over the foetus within her. Finally, the blinding arrogance that no woman is capable of making the painful and already guilt-ridden decision to abort after she has been ''educated'' by witnessing the shocking

photographs of aborted foetuses provided by Precious Life.

The tape is switched off. Ms Smyth is powdering her nose and telling me sternly about the non-existence of backstreet abortions in Northern Ireland - ''believe me we would know about it''. We return to her belief in the ''abortion industry'' and ''the money to be made from women's misery''; the Labour Government's hidden agenda that says ''it is cheaper and easier to abort than support''.

It is then that the woman who puts huge emphasis on ridding the public of their ignorance to achieve the same revelatory experience as herself, declares in a damning self-indictment: ''And you know who runs the American abortion industry? The Mafia and the Jews!'' Ignorance is indeed a dangerous state to be in.