Plastic foetuses outside The Good Counsel Network's pro-life vigil last spring.
Last Wednesday, the world's largest coordinated pro-life vigil kicked off for another year, with participants in over 300 international locations combining their collective prayer power to battle the evils of abortion.
Twice a year since 2004, the 40 Days for Life group – a pro-life organisation founded in Texas – have been urging their international affiliates to spend 40 consecutive days standing outside clinics, trying to dissuade visiting women from getting abortions. While this kind of radical, invasive Christian campaigning is historically more commonplace in the US, the group have begun to pick up support worldwide. They've been active in the UK for three years and their latest vigils are currently taking place in seven cities across England and Wales. The group are part of a growing network of anti-abortion campaigners who are resorting to direct action and bullying tactics to get their point across.
As well as 40 Days for Life, other English groups – such as The Good Counsel Network, Abort 67, Helpers of God’s Precious Infants and the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child – hold regular pro-life vigils and protests. In fact, you might already know Abort 67 as the group who parade graphic images of aborted foetuses through public places, "distressing and intimidating" the students of Sussex University and ruining everyone else's day as they go.
Over the past 18 months, I've been following some of these groups to try to understand what motivates them – why they carry on their crusade to stamp out a woman's right to choose in a country that's predominantly into that idea.
The Good Counsel Network's pro-life vigil on Whitfield Street last spring.
In spring last year, I visited a central London vigil being held by The Good Counsel Network (GCN), the first group founded in England to hold US-style demos outside clinics. (The GCN also run a counselling centre in Twickenham. They've twice been hauled over the coals by the Advertising Standards Agency for promoting the centre in a way that makes it seem like an abortion clinic, rather than an advice centre run by people who are partisan pro-lifers.)
The group's non-stop picket took place opposite a Marie Stopes clinic, with rows of pictures of babies and the Virgin Mary set up along the pavement. Next to the mini Pompidou of piety was a bottle of water, a tub of salt (holy water and blessed salt, obviously) and a circle of pink plastic foetuses that had been carefully arranged on the curb near the clinic's entrance.
The Good Counsel vigil was being coordinated by an Irish guy named Eddy. He seemed like an easygoing kind of guy, he smiled a lot and was unnervingly open about his life. The first time I met him, a member of the public was screaming into his face. But, armed with that slightly sinister kind of warmth often possessed by those who are sure they have God on their side, he just carried on grinning as he was berated by the stranger. "I love that guy," he said.
Eddy wasn’t always a devout Catholic; he only "came back to the faith" five years ago, after the death of a cousin. Before then, he spent his Sundays working in a North London pub and, before that, he was a butcher. When I met him, he'd just found a new girlfriend through a Catholic dating website, catholicmatch.com, which puts people in touch depending on their accordance to the seven tests of faith (weirdly, there’s no option for same sex hook-ups). Despite having a previous relationship with someone who was on the pill, Eddy was adamant that not only abortion, but any kind of contraception, is the devil's work.
"One of the ways the pill works is it kills the new life that was formed,” he asserted. "So I don’t know how many kids I could’ve killed. I’ll have to answer for all those children I’ve killed on Judgment Day."
Police speak to Eddy at the Whitfield Street vigil last spring.
Eddy told me that when he was a child, his mother had almost had an abortion when she was pregnant with his younger brother. However, because she was in Ireland, where abortion is still illegal in most cases (unless the prospective mother can prove she's suicidal at the thought of giving birth), she wasn’t able to go through with it.
Also on the vigil was a Good Counsel Network intern, a Polish woman called Justyna (“like Timberlake”), who used to work in a casino. She ended up getting in touch with the GCN after having an abortion herself, which she has since connected to her depression. “I really wanted to repent,” she told me.
The Good Counsel Network are adamant that they don’t harass women, but that's not a view shared by the clinic they were protesting against, who told me that they've sometimes had to call the police to deal with the pro-life campaigners loitering outside. In fact, on one of the days I was there, I saw a police car pulling up to talk to Eddy. I also saw people on the vigil directly flyer women and their partners as they entered the clinic with leaflets containing grossly misleading information.
I was given more of these leaflets last week when I made a visit to the first day of this autumn's 40 Days for Life vigil in Stratford. When I arrived, there were only two women and one man promoting the cause, standing next to a couple of signs that offered to help anyone "affected by abortion". The man was Robert Colquhoun, the Campaign Director for 40 Days for Life UK.
Robert Colquhoun and the two women at the Stratford vigil last Wednesday.
The leaflets being handed out in Stratford contained stories about women regretting their abortions, pictures of unborn children’s fingers and toes and lists detailing some possible negative outcomes of termination. That list includes the common and powerfully emotive claim that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer – a claim that has been rejected as a myth by both the World Health Organisation and Cancer Research UK.
"I wouldn’t dismiss the evidence so quickly," said Robert, before referring me to a website called abortionbreastcancer.com for the facts. I forgot to ask Robert, but I'm assuming all the evidence on the site was collected by a team of objective, non-partisan scientists who just couldn't find anywhere else to publish their findings.
Like Eddy, Robert wasn’t always a dedicated Catholic. Having been raised an Anglican, he converted to Catholicism while studying history at university. He did the partying, he tells me, and the internship with an investment bank, but it was after hearing a talk from the prominent pro-life politician Lord Alton that he really swung into anti-abortion politics. Pope John Paul II is now another of his inspirations.
Robert has two degrees, a masters and is fully trained as a priest, but campaigning for 40 Days is now his full-time job. I asked him if he's lost friends as a result of his career path; “Lost some, but also made new ones,” he replied. Continuing, he told me that he wasn't disappointed by the first day's turnout: "It’s a 500-hour vigil… and the result from the last campaign saw 30 women choose life for their babies," he said, smiling.
I asked the others on the vigil why they were there. It turned out that one was just walking by and had decided to pray with them, and that the other – surprisingly – is a nurse, who said she'd become disillusioned with the current sex ed advice currently offered to teens. I asked her how she feels about the upset these vigils cause to so many members of the public. “It does affect us. It does upset me to see sadness and pain,” she replied.
Anti-abortion leaflets distributed by English pro-life groups.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) have tried to prevent the vigils from happening, but it seems almost impossible to fight the conviction of the pro-life groups. "We have begged these groups not to do these protests each year, but unfortunately these people are there because they want to close clinics and stop abortions," Abigail Fitzgibbon, policy manager at BPAS, told me.
"They might say it’s a private prayer vigil, but they do things like follow people down the street, harass people and do everything within the law to stop people having an abortion," she continued. "One time, a guy was acting like he was hugging a woman but was actually stopping her from moving – the police had to be called and he had to be arrested."
Abigail told me how the atmosphere at some of the vigils has changed over the years, as the strong reaction from counter-protesters and angry members of the public has led to them being abandoned by all but a hardcore few.
"At the last one, I felt the atmosphere becoming more hostile," she told me. "Now there seems to be a few hardcore men who come and stand there. There will be six of them in a row… it's more aggressive."
Getting to know some of the people on the vigils was a complicated experience. Their presence is distinctly unnerving and I can only imagine the effect it could have on a woman or her partner as they prepare for an abortion. The pro-life leaders I'd talked to had unswerving conviction in their beliefs. I suspected that personal trauma could have been the source of their misgivings about abortion and that religion had provided a justification and a crusade for them. The fact that many are late converts is perhaps testament to this, though of course it's impossible to know for sure.
Yet, despite their views and the damaging nature of their activities, they were chatty, calm and level-headed – trained to give biased counselling and armed with manipulated facts. Sadly, for those apprehended by the groups as they try to make their way into Britain's clinics, there could not be a more dangerous combination.
Follow Will on Twitter: @will_coldwell
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