If you live in London, Birmingham, Brighton, Manchester, Oxford, Southampton or Milton Keynes you may well have seen a couple of people on the street praying, perhaps holding plastic fetus models and giving out leaflets. These folks are volunteers for the U.S based anti-abortion campaign 40 Days for Life, and they claim to be holding 'prayer vigils' outside nine clinics and hospitals in England. The campaign seeks to 'end abortion' through prayer and boasts of clinics which it has caused to shut down in the US, and the 'lives saved' from apparently convincing women not to have abortions.
Going by the poor attendance of these vigils, and general public support for safe, legal abortion I don't think these vigils are going to change provision, certainly the tactic of intimidating clinic staff, patients, and landlords until a clinic is forced to shut down won't wash in the UK. But I am concerned about the real impact these protests may be having on the women accessing the clinics (as well as their partners and families).
The 40 Days for Life organisers claim that they are not harassing women, but merely praying. Right outside clinics and hospitals which perform abortions. Well, thank you, oh Catholic mother of mine, for digging out this handy Bible quote:
"When you pray do not be like the hypocrites; they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at street corners for everyone to see them. Truly I tell you; they have their reward already. But when you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your father who sees what is done in secret will reward you." Matthew: Chapter 6 Verse 5
That's right, Jesus: unlikely to be a fan of standing outside abortion clinics thrusting rosary beads into some unsuspecting woman's hand whilst chanting prayers. If God is omnipresent and omniscient (thank you GCSE Religious Studies) and the simple power of prayer is sufficient to change women's minds, surely these people who oppose abortion could pray to him in their own homes, or at church, or on the bus? Clearly, their presence outside clinics is designed to have a more direct influence on those using the premises.
And this is where my main problem with the 'vigils' lies. Well, that's just it, LIES. 40 Days for Life representatives refute claims that they are shouting at women, or filming them. Whether this is true or not, for me, the real harassment comes from the misinformation that they propagate.
The leaflets 40DfL protestors have been giving out in London (I don't have information on the other locations), presumably to pregnant women in an attempt to sway them away from abortion, contain inaccurate information and rely on scare tactics to spread fear and misinformation.
This leaflet, for example, claims that breast cancer and infertility are 'possible physical complications of abortion'. Not so, say reputable sorts like Cancer Research UK and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
Even more worrying, the leaflets signpost women to a 'crisis pregnancy centre' run by the anti-abortion Good Counsel Network. Education For Choice mystery shopped this centre and found again, that extreme misinformation was being given out, including this leaflet which claims that condoms have tiny holes which let sperm and 'AIDS' (sic) through. It's shocking stuff.
I certainly find the clinic-praying distasteful and ill-judged (especially from those who claim to want to help women facing unwanted pregnancies) but it's the lies and scare tactics of these 'counselling' sessions which I find truly 'un-Christian'.
If you want to support the counter-campaign to 40 Days for Life, please follow @40daysofchoice on Twitter and check out the daily blogs from pro-choice advocates. The campaign is raising money for Education For Choice to continue our work exposing misinformation in schools and crisis pregnancy centres.