More harm than good?

The Catholic Herald has re-opened the debate on the use of graphic imagery outside abortion clinics, in the wake of the acquittal of Andy Stephenson and Kathryn Sloane of Abort 67, who had been accused of breaching Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

The verdict was undoubtedly the correct one, whatever one thinks of the display of graphic imagery outside an abortion clinic, what is clear is that the behaviour of those from Abort 67 did not amount to harassment or threats; protestors stand quietly and tirelessly for hours on end alongside their banners, making no approach to women, passers-by or entrants of the clinic, only engaging if they are directly approached.

There is something of a tendency for some members of the pro-life camp to intellectually hold their nose at the stench of bad publicity that invariably emanates from clinic vigils, publicity that does nothing in terms of attempting to find common ground and thus win the hearts and minds of those who would currently term themselves pro-choice. Whatever one thinks of the Abort 67 campaign and tactics, there is no getting away from the fact that Andy, Kathryn and Angela from Abort 67 are all pro-life heroes. How many who call themselves pro-life are willing to put themselves out there on the line, 24/7 for five years, in all weathers, being prepared to risk abuse, fines and imprisonment for the cause of the unborn? It’s one thing to say that one is pro-life, quite another to BE pro-life – fine words butter no parsnips!

Like them or loathe them, Abort 67 have done much to highlight and yes, educate, members of the public as to the realities of abortion. Robert Wyatt, one of the witnesses for the prosecution, who claimed that he had been offended by the images, testified how his partner had not received counselling neither before nor after the procedure and were therefore unaware of the stage of development of the unborn foetus depicted on the banner. In his statement to the court, he admitted that they had believed the photograph to have been of a much older baby given that arms, legs, fingers, toes and facial features were discernible, when in fact the age of the foetus displayed was 12 weeks. These images give pause for thought, there can be no doubt that one is terminating a little human being, regardless of whether or not one believes that it is truly alive or has any rights. The case has also highlighted the fact that not all women undergoing an abortion are given counselling and raises questions as to informed consent and the information or lack of, surrounding the procedure itself and stages of foetal development.

I admit to oscillating over the issue. These images do give people pause for thought, when faced with the vivid reality of what abortion does to an unborn child, women have instead opted not to undergo this gruesome and demeaning procedure. It is hard to argue with the cogent logic of Andy Stephenson, every time I visit the Abort 67 website, (revamped as of today) I am struck, not only with stomach-churning horror, but also by the veracity, which takes considerable sophistry to deny.

The evidence from those who employ graphic imagery is not only is it extremely convincing, but that often women who are being coerced specifically request leaflets with the graphic imagery, in the hope that they can use this in an attempt to persuade whoever is exerting pressure on them. “Look it really IS a baby”. They also say that men tend to be more won over than women, an experience that seems to chime with me – Robin was won over to the pro-life cause upon viewing a graphic presentation as sixth-former. Abort 67 state that once they have visited a school, the pro-choice groups will refuse to make a counter-visit as a form of protest, the reality being that these images are extremely powerful and difficult to counter. I also know of a previously pro-choice man, who after initially reacting very violently and angrily to these images (he was a pastor and came out with a stream of uncharacteristic expletives on viewing the Abort 67 video) suddenly became a passionate pro-life advocate. Surely if the images save one life they are worth it?

For me, there is a conflict between truth and charity. I previously used the phrase ‘stomach-churning’. I find these images gruesome and distressing to look and tend not to spend much time on the Abort 67 website as a result. I live not far from the site in Brighton and I have to confess to having to fix my eyes firmly on the road when driving past. (Andy, to his credit, has now come to arrangement with the owner of the nearby nursery, so these images are no longer displayed at times when young children will be attending the nursery. Incidentally the irony of an abortion clinic siting itself almost next door to a nursery and opposite a playground seems to have been lost on many.) I don’t like the images not only because they ignore the dignity of the dead, not just because it is a tragic display of a dismembered corpse who never had an opportunity to experience life in all its richness, but also because I am squeamish. Like many, I suspect, I recoil from the images, because I can’t be doing with gruesome gore and guts. I’m the kind of person who watches medical dramas peeping through the cracks in my hands.

When I see these types of images, be they aborted babies, victims of white phosphorous, of children wounded by war or animals experimented on, no matter how heart-rending, or urgent the issue, I put my head down, walk past and emotionally disengage. It’s not that I don’t care, far from it, but personally I prefer to engage on these issues on my terms and not be confronted by images of dismembered bodies whilst walking through town with my children. I may be unusually sensitive, a plot synopsis of the Human Centipede, aided by hormones, haunted my nightmares throughout my third pregnancy, but this is why the majority of people recoil. We don’t want to engage with the contents of what is akin to a snuff movie.

What the abortion clinics don’t want to admit, is that having an abortion is, for most people, a distressing and intimate experience. Women don’t walk through the clinic doors with a sense of objective detachment. Though many might not be aware of exactly what it is they are about to undergo, or the stage of foetal development, all women will realise that, particularly if the procedure is surgical, this will be an intimate and quite probably distressing physical procedure which carries all the attendant risks of trauma. Most women will not exactly be looking forward to what goes on in the cold clinical environment of the operating theatre. The display of graphic images, ups the emotional ante and does therefore add to the trauma of a woman having an abortion. If the pro-life lobby wants to demonstrate that it cares about women, then it needs to abhor anything that might conceivably cause emotional harm and distress.

It would take a certain type of cold hearted psyche not to care about the woman in distress, the woman who is well aware of the actions she is about to undertake and yet feels she has no other choice, to state that her feelings do not matter. I know of many women who have had abortions, due to circumstances, they felt were beyond their control. Such as a someone whom I last bumped into shopping for a pram in a baby store with great excitement. I last heard that she had aborted her unborn child upon discovering that s/he had terrible congenital abnormalities. Though I can’t condone her decision, I can well understand the agony that she went through. For her the decision was not a selfish one, it was not to do with rejecting an imperfect child, she genuinely believed that she was doing the child a kindness – all she could see was a short life of pain and suffering. Though there are many counter-arguments to that, in a culture that encourages and condones the killing of disabled children, couched in the language of compassion, it is very difficult to condemn the women who are in these situations and neither should one use loaded language or do anything that might add to their distress. It was, after all, for these very rare, tragic and horrific circumstances the Abortion Act came into being, a demonstration that hard cases make bad law.

Someone said to me, that if she had seen images such as these on the day that she terminated her pregnancy (a decision she now regrets) she would have committed suicide. Very often these images can be the last straw for women, even if they don’t wish to accept that it is an unborn baby, simply a depiction of bloody surgery could be enough to induce fear and trauma on an already frightened and sad woman. I had increasing difficulty with having to drive past them in the latter stages of my pregnancy. I can also state with confidence that had I been confronted with photos of a cesarian on the morning I gave birth, I would have been in a dreadful state, so frightened was I of the operation that was yet to come.

To me, the images, whilst not threatening or abusive, do cause distress, because they could contribute to a vulnerable woman’s fear. That’s one of the real reason why the clinics don’t want them there, not only do they show the truth of the procedure, but they are a visual reminder of the blood and guts to come – as opposed to the softly worded vague “gentle suction and removal of pregnancy” terminology.

The graphic images certainly have their place, in an academic surrounding, or, as Abort 67 have done in the past, on display in Speaker’s Corner, they can be extremely useful tools for depicting the reality of abortion, but it needs to be in an environment that is mutually consensual. To put them in a very visible place, where it is difficult to escape, simply arouses anger, controversy and polarises. There is also a danger that the more they are viewed, the more they lose their shock value as the public becomes desensitised. Already the more callous pro-choicers have used comparisons of removed gallstones.

Sarah Ditum wrote a piece in last week’s Guardian about the Rights and Limits debate that took place surrounding this issue, where she posed the question whether or not pro-life and pro-choice campaigners could agree on anything. It seems we can and that some consensus can be reached. All of us can agree that those participating in clinic vigils should have a perfect right to do so, under the tenets of free speech that we hold so dear in this country. We can and will disagree as to the morality of clinic vigils. So long as they are carried out peacefully and do not harass vulnerable women then they should continue. For many women the clinic vigils are a last minute life-line, and organisations such as Good Counsel, will attest to the hundreds of women who are helped as a result of their presence. Women who are on the margins of society and who are unable to be reached before they reach the abortion clinic doors. After all organisations such as Good Counsel, don’t have either the funds or the reach of the NHS, BPAS and Marie Stopes, so it’s impossible to offer them the alternative at an earlier stage.

If we want progress to be made, if we want lives to be saved, if we don’t want the draconian legislation being threatened and lobbied for by pro-choice groups who are desperate to stop any sort of presence outside clinics, then we need to find common ground, in order that as many women and babies can be helped as possible. That means showing that we are prepared to listen and to be compassionate. That means keeping the general public on side and showing that we do understand how difficult is for women going through an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. That means understanding that images of brutal surgery and bloodied corpses could prove enormously and needlessly distressing to an already frightened and trapped women.

What is the more appropriate response? Shock and awe tactics, or to stand, like 40 days for life, a respectful distance away, quietly praying with a sign that says “we are here to help” with specially trained pavement counsellors who are able to respectfully engage in dialogue as well as provide adequate resources to make good on the promise of help. Wise as serpents and gentle as doves.

One thought on “More harm than good?

  1. What instinct was it that made the Allies, the on the spot commanders I believe, force the local German population to visit and view the concentration camps and even their children to help eg clear bodies from Railway wagons?

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