40 Days for Life is a religious anti-abortion campaign running between 27th September and 5th November. Activists protest outside clinics providing abortions in the hope of changing the minds of women scheduled for, or considering, the procedure. When 40 Days recently turned up in my hometown of Portsmouth, I sat down with Shonagh Dillon, CEO of charity Aurora New Dawn to write an open letter to protesters, asking them to reconsider their tactics.
Dear 40 Days for Life,
I write to you to appeal to your better judgment, to your Christian values and to your human kindness. I understand you are targeting clinics and hospitals over 40 days as the location of a series of daily 'vigils' where you are praying to 'transform individuals and communities'. I read on your website that through prayer you hope to bring the 'beginning of the end of abortion in our city - and beyond.'
Let me be clear, I don't have a problem with praying, or with your God, or with you having an opinion that's different to mine. It's clear you believe you are right, so arguing that you're wrong seems pointless. We would only end up going in circles. On the issue of abortion, I think it's fair to say that feminists and the religious right fundamentally disagree and that's our right, isn't it, as members of a democracy? So I'm not going to try to change your mind.
In fact, though it may seem strange to you, I suspect we actually have a lot in common - it's often the case on both sides of a heavily contested argument. After all, both sides are used to having to defend our positions to others, although I must confess, I've never had quite your confidence to assert that my opinion is endorsed by God.
For example, as a feminist I'm used to being challenged. I'm used to hearing misinformation, stereotypes and false assumptions about my beliefs - and I'm sure you are too. I am used to having to defend my ideology on a regular, if not daily, basis and I spend large amounts of time fighting for my beliefs: in my case, the rights of women to live free from oppression, including the right to control our own bodies. I imagine your commitment and determination echo that of feminist activists like me.
I'm not here to change your mind on abortion. And I don't need to, because the 1967 Abortion Act made abortion legal for women up to their 24th week of pregnancy. Instead, what I'm asking is for you to consider the methods you're using to fight that law.
Specifically, I'm asking you to take a step back from protests outside abortion providers like the clinic at St Mary's Community Hospital in Portsmouth run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). Like BPAS, I'm asking you to Back Off: to pray in your own space, or indeed, any space other than outside an abortion provider.
I'm asking you to understand that just as it isn't my right to tell you your beliefs are wrong, it is not your right to attempt to emotionally manipulate, intimidate or scare women on a day that is already difficult enough. And let's be clear how many women we're talking about here, because a third of women in the UK will have an abortion before they are 45 years old.
I've read your website, I've seen your campaign materials, and I know that you will already be preparing arguments about the rights of a foetus over-ruling the rights of women. You will tell me that the reason an abortion is difficult for a woman is because abortion is wrong. I understand that your religious beliefs support these views.
But beyond your beliefs is a reality that - after 20 years of working in the field of women's rights - I know very well. The reality is that you and I have no idea why any of the women walking through the doors of an abortion provider came to that decision. And frankly, there is no human on the planet who has the right to know; it's between that woman and her God, should she believe in one. It is not between a woman and a small number of self-appointed representatives of the Lord on Earth.
And I am delighted that the majority of the British public feel the same way. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, public support for abortion on the grounds that a woman does not wish to have the child has increased from 60% to 70% since 2005. The percentage rises to 93% if the woman's life is in danger (and remember what I said, nobody apart from her knows the reason a woman makes the choice to have an abortion).
Not only do most of the British public not agree with your interpretation of religion, neither do the majority of Catholics. Between 1985 and 2016, Catholic support for abortion if a women doesn't want the child almost doubled from 33% to 61%. Even the Pope has had cause to reconsider the unrelenting, unforgiving attitudes historically held by the Catholic church towards the many women of faith who have made the difficult decision to walk through the same doors you now stand outside.
Protesting - for both of us - is our human right and a central pillar of our democracy. But it should not be used as a tool for causing suffering to those we disagree with. So, I'm asking you to think again.
Give these women the privacy they need on the one day they really need it. To do so is an act that demonstrates the compassion and respect most of us understand to be at the heart of Christianity.
Doing so won't affect your right to protest one bit. You can hold signs, and pray and sing hymns away from the clinic of an abortion provider, you will still have your say. It will make no difference to your message, but it will make every difference to a woman in pain who wants - and needs - the privacy and respect that is due to her when exercising a legal right won 50 years ago.
So please, I'm asking you to change your tactic and exercise your legal right to protest by lobbying Parliament instead of intimidating women. After all, this is the way feminists won the rights you're protesting against today.
I hope you do, and if you do, look for me. I'll be the woman standing with a horde of sisters and supporters carrying banners that bear messages the opposite of your own. We'll meet and disagree on an even playing field of open debate and tolerance, rather than on the side-lines of another woman's suffering.
I can't wait to see you there.
Shonagh Dillon, CEO
Sarah Cheverton, Writer in Residence
Aurora New Dawn
Aurora New Dawn is a charity working with victims and survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence and stalking. Find out more about their work at their website.