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Hanging Out With Sydney’s Dedicated Anti-Abortion Protesters

I spent a few days with them to meet the seemingly regular people behind the hate.

by Luke Buckmaster
Apr 8 2015, 2:46am

Elias, early 20s, was pro-choice until he met a group of women his age who were anti-abortion and they changed his mind.

Three days a week, every week, pro-life protesters congregate on a cement patch in Surry Hills NSW, across the road from a women's health clinic. They don't call it a clinic though, to them this is a death zone where heinous government-sanctioned crimes are committed on a daily basis.

They hover in front of a large roll-out banner that reads "Pray to end Abortion." Sometimes they do more than pray. They wave signs, march through the city, wield pictures of unborn babies, and sometimes bring along figurines of foetus' for shock-inducing props.

Spend a while on this street corner and you'll start to feel sick.

Abortion is legal in NSW if performed to protect a woman's mental and physical health, and in recent years has fallen out of favour as an electoral issue. It's not a jump to assume general public sentiment is not in the protestors favour.

In Tasmania this form of demonstration is now illegal. Since November 2013 people are not permitted to protest within 150 metres of an abortion clinic. If similar legislation catches on in other states and territories, their days may be numbered. But for now they're not going anywhere. As one man me: "Our presence is visible. That's an important thing. They want to take our voice from the public domain and we refused to go."

The pro-lifers' big hope is that visitors to the clinic will experience a last minute change of mind. If a woman sees the group and decides not to go through with it, God's work is done and they go home believing they saved a human life. Throughout March the pro-lifers have been upping their presence. They've crowd-sourced volunteers and drawn up a rotating roster so their spot is manned by at least two people from 6AM until late.

The extra effort is part of an annual global initiative called 40 Days for Life, which spread from Texas in 2004 in a co-ordinated effort in dozens of locations around the world. The official website implores visitors to "take action" and "start a campaign." If a volunteer doesn't have an abortion facility in their community they are instructed to "select a different location which has some strategic significance."

The ground where the protests meet has recently been sprayed painted with the words "SURRY HILLS IS PRO CHOICE". A couple of young women poured metho on the graffiti and scrubbed most of it away, but you can still make the letters out.

When I return the next day, it's been blackened out completely.

Some protesters are new to the game and others say they've seen it all. One tells me a woman stripped naked in front of them a little while ago in some kind of weird anti-protest protest. A couple of days before I arrived, the pro-lifers discovered a pig's head left for them and reported it to the police.

"There are some sick people out there," one man says. "Where do you even buy a pig's head?"

Despite the open aggression aimed at them daily, they hardly seem phased.

When I first arrived I felt a bit awkward and worried passers-by might mistake me for one of them. I said hello and introduced myself as a journalist. Instead of withdrawing, the small group seemed relieved I wasn't like most strangers who interact with them. Most people who approach them tell them to piss off.

Margaret, 85, asks where I stand in the debate. I tell her I am pro-choice but she doesn't mind—rather she politely poses for a photograph. She smiles but tells me my position is never a morally acceptable one.

"Not even with rape. It's not the baby's fault. And somebody would adopt that baby if they were prepared," she says.

She continues onto American politics. Obama, she says, failed to get his healthcare package through because he gives too much money to foreign countries for abortions.

Breaking away I approach Paul, a non-descript 57-year-old. Chatting I ask why they don't pray in a church or other places where they won't cause offence. He says, "Here our prayers are more focused. We pray for longer. People at home or in a church probably wouldn't spend two or three hours in prayer for the unborn."

Margaret chimes in with a blunter response: "Because that's where the crimes happen," she says, her old fingers pointing to the clinic.

Paul in front of the group's banner.

I suggest to Paul that the presence of protesters outside a place where distressed people frequent might further distress them. Like everybody here he sees things differently. I can't tell if it's stubbornness or blinkered ideological perspectives but nobody seems to even be able to comprehend that their presence might hurt vulnerable people.

"If they see us there and want to focus that emotion and anger on us, that happens for sure. But I don't think we're the cause of it. The cause of it is because of what they're about to do and what's going to be done to them," said Paul.

Paul is one of the group's veterans. He's been coming to this corner every week for the last seven years. He claims over the decade he's seen more than 400 women change their minds outside various clinics in Australia and numerous others pushed through the entrance by their partners. He tells me he has held in his arms babies whose lives would have been aborted here.

But it's not a total joy-fest for him: he has arthritis and standing on concrete can't be comfortable. But he comes here out of a sense of duty. He says returning to the same provocative location again and again "is not something I enjoy. I don't wake up in the morning thinking oh wonderful, I'm going to go stand on the street corner for three hours."

There is a definite sense of community associated with this patch of cement. It's something you only perceive if you stick around for a while. Like-minded people with a shared cause drift in and out: they meet new people, return and develop friendships and relationships. There's a social element to waving anti-abortion signs and trying to catch the attention of women across the street. The pro-lifers might not talk about, but it's here.

A man in his late 40s or early 50s arrives. He has startlingly large and thick bushels of black hair sprouting from his ears. I try and fail to not look. He turns out to be the most duty bound of all of them. This guy is here to pray and everything else is a distraction. Unsurprisingly he's wary of journalists: "They take what you say and then they twist it".

Greta (L), Margaret (R)

The others are more approachable. Greta is a former scientist with a PHD in chemistry who retired last year. Her motivation is to "protect our unborn kids" and rejects my suggestion that a foetus should not be regarded as a life itself. "It's still a separate entity. It's alive. It's got a heart that beats and well formed organs. So people who say it's a blob, well that's not right."

Greta volunteers three hours a week manning phones for the controversially named Pregnancy Help Australia phone line. Last week one caller thought the service would assist her with her abortion. Greta told the caller she wouldn't and "so she didn't want to talk to me."

Women dial that number not knowing ideologically-minded people such as Greta are on the other end of the line. At least the group on this street corner don't deal in this kind of deception: they are here, they are exposed and for better or worse they are ready for a fight.

Elias (main image) is in his early 20s. He used to be pro-choice, he tells me, but he met a group of women his age who were anti-abortion and they changed his mind. He's only been here once before. After finding a flyer in his church he came for an hour last week and plans to return. Elias likes being part of a cause and says he might join politics one day.

He tells me: "Our society shows that young people are pro-choice. They don't like kids that much or they don't view pregnancy in a positive way, no matter what circumstance."

A cyclist rides by and yells "bigot!" But Elias remains unruffled.

"That was nothing", he notes. "Just ignore it, stay strong. I don't despise people for feeling that way about us, because in church they say always pray for those that don't know any better."

I wander off to the side for a while and wait for a fresh batch of protesters. Days of talking about foetuses, clinics, pig heads, aggressive partners, aggressive protesters, anti-abortion, anti-contraceptives, and street-side confrontations have left me tired and weirder out. I go across the road for a beer.

I look out the window at that opaque building, described by pro-lifers as the site of a vigil and by everybody else as a health clinic. I wonder whether there's a back entrance.

Follow Luke on Twitter: @lukebuckmaster