Readers of the Catholic Universe can read my comment about the case of Bernadette Smyth there.
Just a few points to note:
Bernadette Smyth has been indicted of harassment towards the dormer Northern Ireland politican, turned clinic director, Dawn Purvis. This is a charge which she denies and intends to appeal. Mrs Smyth claims that on no occasion did she ever attempt to contact Mrs Purvis, no bad language was ever used and indeed on both occasions where the harassment was deemed to take place, it was Mrs Purvis who approached her and invaded her personal space.
It is then, not clear why the judge thought fit to make remarks about women seeking abortion in Northern Ireland when the case was concerned about an unpleasant personal spat between two individuals. One may also question the appropriateness of these remarks , considering that the legal situation surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland is unclear – it is still contrary to the Offence against the Persons Act. In case anyone may be tempted to argue that this is an antiquated anomaly, the legalisation of abortion has been debated several times over the past few years at Stormont and on every single occasion MLAs have voted against any change to the law.
One could argue that those who stand outside clinics in Northern Ireland are in fact attempting to prevent a crime from taking place. In any event, the judge seems to have gone way beyond his remit in terms of making this case about the wider issue of protest outside abortion clinics. Judge Chris Holmes’ comments in this case amount to his taking of the law into his own hands and attempting to change or redefine it.
It is unsurprising that pro-choice campaigners are seeking to make hay out of this case and using it to leverage and promote legislation which would set up buffer zones outside abortion clinics, in the same way as has happened in a few US states.
One might argue that this is an inevitable consequence of pro-life campaigners turning abortion clinics into flashpoints of conflict, but it should also be noted that so far there have been absolutely no arrests of anyone involved in the peaceful 40 days for life campaign which has been running since 2010.
The only legal action which has taken place, was against Andrew Stephenson from Abort 67, the group who display graphic imagery outside clinics. The case against him collapsed due to lack of evidence.
Without re-hashing the pros and cons of different types of abortion clinic protest (my strong preference is for a silent prayer vigil, accompanied by appropriate information about foetal development and pregnancy along with resources on where to get help), the lack of arrests do not mean that the police do not have sufficient powers or that more legislation is needed.
The public order act amply covers for protection from harassment. My experience of participating in 40 Days for Life vigils, is that no harassment occurs, no filming takes place and women are neither followed nor approached. The former BPAS clinic in Bedford Square had a camera permanently trained on those participating in the vigil, which took part across the road. Any illegal or inappropriate behaviour would have been filmed, passed to the police and no doubt circulated all over the internet.
My experience of participating in silent prayer vigils is that the only aggression comes from random passers-by and strangers on the internet who have no idea of precisely what happens. (You turn up and pray the rosary either silently, or quietly). For some people the very act of turning up and praying is interpreted as passive aggression. The very presence of people who disagree with abortion is deemed to be harassment, because women, understandably cannot bear to see a physical manifestation that there are some people who disagree with them and they find the concept that they are terminating a life very painful and difficult to bear. The night that I had hyped-up women and men, screaming obscenities and deliberate blasphemy within inches of my face and that of the 6 week old baby strapped to my chest, blaring loud klaxon horns and hurling abuse as a response to silently standing outside a clinic and praying, (when it was closed) is an occasion which is seared into my memory.
Never before have I been confronted with such raw, visceral, violent hatred and anger, simply for standing across the road from a clinic and praying. There was nothing whatsoever about my behaviour that merited such a response, it was simply the fact that I had the temerity to publicly witness against abortion. A similar response is garnered by the Oxford pro-life group who gather outside a hospital where abortions are performed on a Saturday, when no actual proceudres are taking place. They cannot be accused of harassing women, however under these proposed new buffer zones, their protest would be illegal. The behaviour which is being objected to is of public disagreement with abortion, nothing more. If pro-lifers were accusing pro-choicers of intimidation, accusations of lying would be flying about and substantive proof demanded. Why is in then that these general accusations are being believed as Gospel truth and why are the clinics not asking the women who claim to have been harassed to point out those individuals responsible, state precisely what it was they are supposed to have done and calling the police? This could easily be done without compromising anonymity. In the case of Northern Ireland, Precious Life have been praised by senior police officers for the peaceful nature of their protests.
Comparisons with America, are moot – other than to note that there has been no history of violence of intimidation towards abortion clinic operators or staff in the UK. Ann Furedi is more than happy to debate abortion on university campuses and has never expressed any well-founded fear or threats to her personal safety. The same cannot be said for me however, before I even began writing this blog, one woman spammed me with several personal abusive emails threatening to report me to my husband’s former Anglican bishop for ‘endangering vulnerable pregnant women’ due to my pro-life views and has made several attempts to interfere with any professional or media work. I receive a number of threats, specifically wishing for my death in childbirth, and the removal of my children or for them to have an abortion, on a depressingly frequent basis. The only people ever to throw mud and cause guilt and shame about my past abortion are themselves pro-choicers, who purport not to judge!
When it comes to the filming of women, I drive past Wistons clinic in Brighton, the home of Abort 67 on a daily basis and often walk my dog past, to take a discrete shufty. I’ve never witnessed any intimidating behaviour, unless one counts the offering of leaflets and certainly never any filming of women, which is strictly prohibited by 40 days for Life. My understanding is that one campaigner from Abort 67 has a camera permanently switched on strapped about their person, not trained on any specific individuals but rather to provide evidence of behaviour in case harassment is alleged and indeed in case they themselves are subject to attack.
Whether or not prayer vigils are prudent is one issue, but that is not the same as whether or not they ought to be illegal. In the case of Abort 67 or God’s Helpers of Precious Infants who offer passers-by literature, again this is not illegal and is no different to the very many chuggers who stand on the streets handing out material that many people would consider desperately offensive.
There is little to choose between the offensive literature of the anti-vivisectionists and political campaigners who litter the streets of Brighton displaying graphic photographs of dismembered and suffering animals, or of young children shot and tortured in the Middle East, and the material that Abort 67 hands out. When it comes to the religious nuns and older ladies who stand tirelessly outside some abortion clinics – they only offer rosaries and leaflets on alternative pregnancy resources and nothing graphic or offensive. It’s nowhere near as distressing as some of the images that my children are subjected to if I take them into Brighton on a busy Saturday. Neither is the atmosphere as intimidating as that created by the protestors who until recently stood outside the Soda Stream shop next to Waitrose, hassling and heckling passers-by and effectively preventing people from going into a shop. Same with the anti-fur folk from PETA who hound anyone who dares either to wear fur or frequent retailers who stock it.
For those who object to the comparison, if you are claiming that a baby is not in fact a human being, or a life, or anything other than a blob of non-sentient parasitic tissue which has no rights, then why is protesting against its ill-treatment and untimely death so unconscionable? Why is it okay to harangue shoppers and make them feel guilty for consumer choices or force them to look at dying animals in appalling conditions overseas or tortured in laboratories and yet not acceptable to make other people aware of what an unborn baby actually looks like, or consider whether or not abortion is killing? If we are accepting that the plight of humanity is more important than that of animals, then why are we excluding a discussion of human life at the very place that it is terminated?
One of the most unbearable aspects of this pro-choice campaign, is attempts such as these from Emma Barnett, the Jewish editor of Telegraph women, to define and impose her version of what should constitute Christian behaviour onto others. As Laura Keynes points out, Christ did not shy away from hard truths and while He would have undoubtedly had compassion for women feeling that they had little other choice than to abort, he would not have minced his words about clinics which seek to make money from the killing of desperate women’s unborn children. There is no doubt that organisations such as the Good Counsel network perform corporal works of mercy, feeding, clothing and housing women who would otherwise be on the streets and who are already living hand-to-mouth. They are allowing the children of the poor and marginalised and very often immigrants, to be born and allowing those who would otherwise receive no benefits or medical care, to not only survive, but to thrive.
Whatever you think of the tactics of Abort 67, Andy Stephenson displays the radical unapologetic and unashamed honesty of Christ himself and indeed causes similar outrage and scandal. We may be called to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves, but we should equally remember that Christians are not called to appease public opinion, rather than to do what is pleasing to God. Secular society wishes to define Christians as fuzzy well-meaning do-gooders, a bit like tank-cleaning fish. We are supposed to quietly and unobtrusively go about our business, sucking up and cleaning the scum or dirt, but never making ourselves visible or detracting from the other more attractive and colourful species. We can hold our funny views about abortion or whatever, but we should not be allowed to promote these to others and if possible, we ought to change them if we want the important people to like us and be nice to us.
Make no mistake, the sentiment behind those looking to create buffer zones is the same illiberality that wishes to close down abortion debate which seems to be pervading in our universities. This is not about making abortion clinics ‘safer’ places for women but about suppressing any point of view which states that abortion is wrong and takes the life of an unborn child, especially in a place which could cause women to rethink her decision. Laura is not the only one who wishes that someone had offered her a viable alternative the morning she walked into an abortion clinic, had someone been there the morning I walked in, I would not have wiped out my baby’s future either. Many of the volunteers with Good Counsel Network are those very women who were themselves helped a few years previously and who are able to tell people, exactly what is on offer. No wonder Marie Stopes wants them gone.
Some people think that abortion is wrong. The function of the law is not to protect people from hearing points of view which they find objectionable, no matter how attractive this prospect may seem at times.