The controversy about 40daysforLife continues to rumble on, following their appearance on the Today programme on Wednesday morning, which with an audience of over 4 million people, was a massive publicity coup for an ‘organisation’ which is run on a shoe-string.
The amateur nature of 40days is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in as much as without access to any sort of slick PR machine, unlike the abortion clinics and their associated groups, 40daysforlife cannot be accused of back-door lobbying or underhand techniques. There is no flashy website or dedicated social media manager. They are very much what they say on the tin. An attempt to unite Christians and other faiths, in an invitation to attend vigils to peacefully pray for all those inside the abortion clinics. There can be no doubt with regards to the sincerity of the organisers or participants. Credit needs to be given to Robert Colquhoun who brought this campaign to the UK and who has mobilised the prayers of many people, both in front of the clinics and encouraged prayer, meditations and fasting for those at home.
That 40days have appeared on national media, following their appearance on Radio 4, they were then the subject of discussion on Matthew Wright’s show on Channel 5, is a testament to their success. They are certainly raising awareness. There can be no doubt that they have pro-abortion advocates rattled, with the emergence of counter-campaigns and lots of attempts to smear and discredit.
Which brings me on to the flip-side of their efforts. It needs to be remembered that this is a wholly amateur operation. Every single volunteer, from Robert Colquhoun downwards, is unpaid and gives up their free time. They all have day jobs. There simply is not the money to employ anyone. Which means that their social media account is not running in as professional a way as would be desirable. Getting the PR right is an essential part of activism, and social media plays a not inconsequential part. Understandably, 40days sees their main role as prayer and fasting, they are far more concerned with the spiritual than the temporal, which leaves them open to criticism.
More seriously, the amateur nature of the campaign also means that it leaves themselves open allegations of malpractice and harassment such as the filming and harassment of women. The filming of women both on the street and going in and out of the clinic is wholly unacceptable. 40daysforlife do not condone or encourage this is any way. The difficulty for them is, that despite the presence of at least one organiser at every vigil, it becomes very difficult to control the behaviour of other people. Participants do need to sign up to the statement of peace, which explicitly prohibits people from acting in a manner that may be harmful and asks participants to ensure that they reflect Christ’s compassion and love. The difficulty is that Christian compassion and love may be interpreted in a myriad of ways, however we can be reasonably confident that Christ would not condone the filming and invasion of privacy of vulnerable women. Once somebody does start to behave in a way that is unacceptable, they are immediately disassociated from the vigil, but as the participants are supposed to act in a peaceful way and are predominantly concerned with prayer, it becomes almost impossible to force someone to stop doing something unhelpful. Filming in public is not against the law and even Sunny Hundal was not averse to turning up to Bedford Square and filming, although he did not specifically film the faces of women. Unless any specific laws are broken or public order offences committed, though the organisers can politely request people to stop filming or behaving in a way that may be deleterious, they are powerless to act, other than call the police. The filming would appear to be a two way street, participants on the vigil have informed me of being very disconcerted that for the entire duration of their stay (usually an hour) there has been a member of the clinic with a video camera trained directly upon them.
On the Today programme Anne Furedi read a statement from a woman who said that she had been followed to the clinic and then made an allusion to women being pinned up against the wall. Obviously if this has happened it is despicable, however as BPAS are obviously filming the protest, surely if this had happened there would be evidence which should have been passed to the police. Personally speaking, if someone had done that to me whilst entering an establishment, I would have alerted the staff inside straight away, identified the assailant and called the police. There was another accusation of encirclement, followed by an admission that very often there will only be one protestor, which makes encirclement impossible. If one person follows another to the clinic door as alleged, unless they are some kind of super-hero with extraterrestrial powers, or able to bi-locate, encirclement seems highly unlikely.
Whilst loathe to accuse anyone of lying, it seems possible that some distortion has gone on here. The modus operandi of 40daysforlife is that most participants take part in prayer and witness and volunteers take turns to distribute leaflets. The following accusation, is not one of stalking, but of women being followed to the door of the clinic. If this does happen, the zeal is understandable, but it must stop. I have spoken to several participants of 40days vigils over the past few days and none of them recognise this type of behaviour. What usually happens is a leaflet is offered, if the person wants to accept or engage in conversation, discourse takes place, but following anyone down the street is not encouraged and would disassociate someone from the vigil.
40days recognise that women entering the abortion clinic are vulnerable. That’s why they have a big sign “we are here to help” and why they offer back-up support, which I will discuss in a later post. Abortion rights groups are so concerned by the impact of these vigils that they are using every tool in their arsenal to smear and discredit, that they are also targeting the Good Counsel Network, again another voluntary organisation, entirely reliant on charitable donations and who are more concerned with their daily work of actually getting on and providing real practical help, than mounting PR campaigns or properly defending themselves. Those on 40days must ensure that they do not leave themselves open, if a leaflet is offered and refused then that should be the end of it. An opportunity to engage and change hearts and minds has been put forward, pestering women who are in terrible situations is counter-productive. IF this happens, and I’m not convinced it does, but if it does, then organisers need to stamp on this. Though I am in no way vulnerable, I know just how annoying it is when someone attempting to advertise a product or hand out a leaflet won’t take no for an answer. It just puts one’s back up and causes defensiveness. On an everyday level, there is an incredibly pushy group of cosmetic salesmen in Brighton’s Churchill Centre, who seem to target me every time I have the children in the double-buggy. Despite the fact I am clearly preoccupied with manhandling a buggy, stopping child A from pulling child B’s hair or preventing child from clambering out of buggy or tantrums etc, a “no thanks” seems to have no effect, these boys continue to sidle up alongside you, repeatedly cajoling you to try their luscious products. Never mind the hand-cream, it’s Arnica they need if they don’t leave me alone. If unwanted hand cream samples give me the rage, it can only be imagined what a passionate pro-life supporter might do to a woman who is in a delicate emotional state. A leaflet offered is the most that should be attempted and a refusal met with good grace.
Ann Furedi and others have commented that the actions of 40daysforlife are un-Christian in their actions. Whilst I usually attempt to ensure that my pro-life arguments are predominantly secular, a pro-life viewpoint does not necessitate theism, I am not ashamed to admit that I am first and foremost a Christian, and for me, being pro-life follows holistically from my Christian faith. Prayer constitutes an enormous part of Christianity. I don’t talk about my prayer life as often as I should, but that is partly because for me, it is deeply intimate and personal. As personal to me as my intimate life with my husband. I worry that talking about it, somehow violates my relationship with the Lord, but prayer is a huge feature of my daily life. As Christians we should never under-estimate the power of prayer, which is part of the success of 40daysforlife. There have globally been thousands of babies saved.
Some, including Christians, have mooted that this prayer should be in the confines of our own homes. To me, that seems to be pandering to the modern secular agenda. It’s Okay to be a Christian, but we have to be nice mute ones, never causing any trouble. That isn’t what Christ was about, he was a radical, he hung about with the poor, the dispossessed, the outcast and the vulnerable. He drove money lenders out of the Temple and was non too concerned with what view the authorities may take of him. Would he have been outside an abortion clinic healing women before they went in? The answer is most definitely. However, though Christ always meets you where you are, He does not force Himself upon you. All of those who encountered Christ, saw Him and came to Him. He did not chase people, He invited them to follow Him. Which is of course the lesson for those outside clinics. An invitation must be issued, but not forced.
When it comes to the issue of Christians publicly manifesting their faith, we seem to have something of a crisis in the UK, which is feeding into a culture war. Politicians love to tell us that we are a tolerant and diverse society, but what that seems to entail in practice is smiling tolerantly and happily at women in their hijabs or saris or at Gary and Jamie holding hands whilst walking their Gucci-clad chiuaua down the street. Isn’t it wonderful, we tell ourselves, that people can now live their lives without harassment or fear. Whilst that is most definitely true, the same is not said of Christians who could be said to be serious in their faith. We are “fundy nutters” driven by religious fervour and hatred apparently. What is forgotten is that a key part of Christianity is not only prayer, but evangelisation. Spreading the Good News. Clearly this has to be done in an appropriate way, one that is not counter-productive, but in an allegedly tolerant and diverse society, it should be possible, to gently talk about your faith or your beliefs without living in fear of hate-speech or dismissal. If a work colleague wants to ask me my views on something, I should not be too frightened of the consequences to honestly engage.
Far from being un-Christian praying peacefully outside an abortion clinic is an act of witness and of faith, it is a living out of the Christian vocation and should not be eschewed out of fear or because it is thought impolitic. There seems something diabolic behind the notion that Christians should not be praying outside of Churches or their own homes, let alone in front of abortion clinics, where so much destruction of life is taking place. It comes to something when Catholics are suggesting that other Catholics should not be praying in public, for fear of other’s reactions or negative PR.
For those who suggest that their presence is un-Christian in that it potentially upsets women, I refer to my previous post; if abortion is upsetting and traumatic – why is that? This person appears to think that it is nothing of the sort – I love abortion she says. Women must be treated compassionately and sensitively, which must rule out harassment, invasion of privacy or anything that could amount to condemnation, however a presence which offers another choice or point of view, a way back from abortion, does not lack compassion. Abortion is the ending of the life of an unborn child, which hurts not only child, but the mother as well. A pastoral team in my diocese patrols Beachy Head, spotting potential jumpers and offering fellowship, comfort and support, a way back. No Christian would stand back and watch a person hurl themselves off a cliff, because it’s their body, their choice and they were scared of being intrusive. Offering a leaflet or saying a rosary in those circumstances would be a wholly inadequate approach. A pro-life presence signifies to people that they do not have to end the life of their unborn child.
What all Christians need to be aware is that pro-life should consist of the three Ps; politics, PR and prayer, which all have equal import. 40days need to ensure that their wonderful prayer efforts are not undermined by lack of PR or politics. “Professional” Catholic pro-life activists must not forget or deny the power of prayer and public witness.
Responding to Robert Colquhoun’s statement that those attending vigils were there out of a spirit of compassion and love, Anne Furedi requested that they should “take your love elsewhere”. It doesn’t take a genius to work out which of those statements is most in accord with Gospel values.
During yesterday’s vigil at Bedford Square, a member of the public arrived and covered the vigil in horse dung. They calmly ignored it, continuing to pray, clearing up the site when they left. That’s intimidation for you!