Pro-Lifer Goes Home After Nine Weeks in Jail 'for a Principle'

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - A pro-life activist in Australia appeared in court Wednesday after spending nine weeks in custody for refusing to promise that he would stay away from an abortion clinic whose entrance he has repeatedly blocked.

Graham Preston, a father of six, was found guilty by a magistrate in the east coast city of Brisbane of refusing a police order to move during a protest.

The court imposed a fine of 1,500 Australian dollars ($980), and he was allowed to go home.

Preston plans to add it to a growing pile of unpaid fines. Paying them would be tantamount to admission of guilt, he said by phone from his Brisbane home.

Preston was arrested on May 15 for failing to obey a police instruction to move away from the doors of a Brisbane abortion clinic.

At a bail hearing after his arrest, he refused to sign a condition that he would not return to the Spring Hill Clinic until his scheduled court hearing, and was as a result held in custody.

Preston said he was pleased to be home, as separation from his family had been the hardest part of the ordeal.

He had shared space in the maximum-security remand prison with men "charged and convicted with anything from murder down."

Preston said he was continually surprised at how many other inmates were supportive of his stand and expressed opposition to abortion.

It amazed many of the prisoners to learn that he could have walked out of there by simply agreeing to sign the bail conditions.

"The thought of somebody taking a stand on principle, resulting in them going to jail, was just too much for them."

Preston's wife Liz, also a pro-life campaigner, said earlier Wednesday it had been "a very hard nine weeks" without her husband.

She supported his action, however. One of the positive things to come out of the episode was that it focused attention once again on the abortion issue.

Australian pro-lifers say around 100,000 abortions take place each year in the country, including 15,000 in Queensland, a state of 3.4 million people.

As long ago as 1993, Preston was causing what one Brisbane magistrate described as a "public and private nuisance" by obstructing women outside abortion clinics.

About a year ago, he and other activists set up a small group calling itself Protect Life.

They hold sit-ins in the doorways of clinics, trying to stop women from entering. The protestors remain silent, but hold placards including one depicting an unborn child at eight weeks' gestation.

They say their actions - which they call "rescues" - are designed to help save lives.

"We are non-violently placing ourselves between the intended victims and the abortionists who would kill them."

Asked what he planned to do next after his first spell in prison, Preston said he would definitely return to the abortion clinics - but not immediately.

"I'm conscious of my responsibility to my family."

He and his wife had agreed, he said, that if he spent time in jail, he would not take any action over an equal length of time that would land him into trouble.

For the next nine weeks, in other words, Preston will not be visiting Brisbane's abortion clinics.

But he hoped other protestors would make their presence felt over that period and beyond.

It was the group's long-term hope that many more people would join the campaign.

"The reality is, with only one or two people at the [clinics'] front door, it's still pretty easy for people to get in. If we had 50 people there ..."

It would also put pressure on the state government if it had to find prison space for dozens of protestors, he added.

'Other methods haven't worked'

At Wednesday's hearing, Preston said he had argued a legal case, rather than a simple pro-life one.

Under Queensland law, if a person attacks a pregnant woman and her baby dies, the assailant is charged with homicide and can be jailed for life, he pointed out.

He said he was disappointed, but not particularly surprised, when the magistrate made no attempt to respond to the argument, but simply found him guilty.

A fellow activist, Anne Rampa, has argued that pro-lifers had tried other methods, including rallying, lobbying and writing, but all had failed.

"I believe we are failing because we are not acting in accordance with our beliefs - we are not trying to rescue the children in a direct, and normal, way," she wrote recently.

"If a child was in a burning building, we'd do a break-and-enter to rescue it. We would not think it was breaking the law - the higher purpose of saving someone's life would override this."

"How can we expect people to think of the unborn as small humans if we don't behave as if they are either?"

Many activists who mount "rescues" are inspired by the U.S.-based Operation Rescue endeavor, which began in the 1980s. The Operation Rescue leader, Randall Terry, was repeatedly jailed for his activities.

Brisbane's Spring Hill Clinic refused to comment Wednesday on the Preston case.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow