Anti-abortionist jailed for photo protest

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The Independent Online

A 74-year-old pro-life campaigner has been jailed for sending offensive pictures of mutilated foetuses through the post.

Edward Atkinson targeted the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn, Norfolk. The material showed severed limbs and a foetus without its head. It is the first time that a custodial sentence has been imposed on an anti-abortion protester since terminations were legalised in 1968.

The Queen Elizabeth Hospital reacted by removing Atkinson from a waiting list for a hip replacement, a move that was criticised last night as meeting "militancy with militancy."

In a separate court case last week, Veronica Connolly, 50, who is disabled and uses a wheelchair, was convicted of sending pictures of aborted foetuses to pharmacies in Birmingham in protest at use of the morning after pill. Her case has been referred to a higher court for sentencing.

Both Atkinson and Connolly were described yesterday as "activists" in the UK Life League, a militant anti-abortion group which has adopted American-style tactics of harassment and intimidation.

The group's leader, James Dowson, a former member of the Orange Lodge in Northern Ireland, said: "They are the first martyrs and they certainly won't be the last. This is the beginning of the firming up of our campaign ... Unless we do things like [this] we won't get the issue taken seriously. We want to put ourselves between the butcher's knife and the baby."

Police have warned that the group's tactics are akin to those of animal rights extremists and said their activities were being watched.

The league targeted Woldingham Catholic girls school in Surrey last month, accusing the head, Diana Vernon, of "child abuse" for providing sex education to pupils aged 14 and 15.

Earlier, a gynaecology nurse at Kings College hospital, London, was the focus of a hate campaign by the group, which posted her address on its website and accused her of being a "cold-hearted baby killer." In 2005, the group named Scottish politicians whom it accused of supporting the "holocaust of legalised terminations".

Atkinson, who was jailed for four weeks, enclosed the offensive pictures with replies to routine inquiries from the hospital.

When managers complained that secretaries who opened his letters had been upset by the contents, he responded by sending a package of further photos to the chief executive of the trust, Ruth May, followed by a video of an abortion.

The hospital referred the case to the police and banned Atkinson from all treatment except for life- threatening conditions. A spokesman said: "The hospital trust board decided to take him off the waiting list. It is up to his GP to find another hospital to take him .... The NHS has a zero-tolerance policy to the abuse of staff."

David Paintin, a consultant gynaecologist and former chairman of the Birth Control Trust, said: "It is wrong to retaliate in that fashion. This person sounds ill rather than criminal. Sending literature that the chief executive finds offensive should not be sufficient to disbar someone from treatment."