A high profile anti-abortion activist has been found guilty of harassment in Belfast. It’s shone a much-needed spotlight on the growing numbers of ‘Christian’ protestors shaming women outside clinics throughout the UK. Emma Barnett is appalled
Full disclaimer: I have never liked or understood religious preachers.
And yet I seem to be a magnet for them. On the tube, in the street, on the bus – I am regularly offered Jesus as a route to my salvation. In fact there’s one man outside my local train station who just screams his messiah’s name at the top of his voice. Every. Single. Day.
Often I just awkwardly mumble ‘no thank you’ before shuffling off, feeling embarrassed.
Or when I am feeling slightly bolder, I tell them they are barking up the wrong tree, what with me being a member of a different tribe and all that.
So before I am accused of being anti-religion, I should also make crystal clear that it’s preciously because I am a member of one of the oldest faiths in the world, that I also loathe the hard religious sell.
To take something as fundamentally personal as faith and shove it into the public realm just feels off. I feel this more strongly because I’m Jewish: just like you’ll never see Quakers on the street preaching, you won’t see rabbis trying to convert people, because our religion teaches that every righteous person will make it into heaven.
I know I’m not the only one who feels that, while religion should offer people answers, it isn’t appropriate – or natural – to force them upon them.
I wrote recently about a new conversion campaign by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to deploy thousands of their flock at train stations across the UK.
While it’s slightly disconcerting to be offered a pamphlet promising ‘eternal happiness’ before I’ve had my morning tea, these devoted folk aren’t harming anyone. Freedom of speech rules in this country mean they can hand this information out. And that same freedom means I can reject it, as I stride to work.
However, the persistent ‘Christian’ protestors who stand outside the UK’s abortion clinics, week in week out, with distasteful placards, cameras around their necks – handing out leaflets riddled with bogus medical information – some of which was exposed in a Telegraph Wonder Women investigation ealier this year, are an entirely different kettle of fish.
One in three women in the UK will have an abortion in their lives. The same one in three will feel emotional, sensitive and vulnerable the day they have that abortion. No one is pro abortion. They are pro choice. There is a massive difference. And on the day they walk into an abortion clinic, they should not be berated by so-called ‘Christians’.
A damning judgement
Yesterday one of Ireland’s most high profile anti-abortion protestors, Bernadette Smyth, was found guilty of harassing the head of Belfast’s Marie Stopes Clinic – Dawn Purvis (also the former Progressive Unionist party leader). This friendly ‘Christian’ now faces jail.
Let me give you a flavour of the lovely Smyth. When Purvis asked her and her gang of protestors to stop harassing her personally, ‘Christian’ Smyth was said to have responded in an exaggerated drawl: “You ain’t seen harassment yet, darling.”
Chris Holmes, the judge, didn’t pull any punches in his comments: “I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not feel it is appropriate for anyone to be stopped outside this clinic in any form, shape or fashion and questioned either as to their identity or why they are going in there and being forced to involve themselves in conversation at times when they are almost certainly going to be stressed and very possibly distressed.”
These abortion protests are happening up and down the UK
Now before you file this incident away as something that just happens in Belfast, or Bible Belt America – stop and read on. Especially if you are Christian. I implore you.
Smyth is one of many regular protestors taking to the streets outside abortion clinics up and down this tiny isle – all in the name of God and being a good, charitable Christian.
In fact one of these people, Andrea Williams, from the Christian Legal Centre, was on Radio 4 this morning, bleating on about why these protestors in the UK are doing the right thing by these women.
Clare Murphy, a spokeswoman from one of the UK’s main abortion providers, BPAS, tells me that at many of their clinics – as far apart as Richmond, Doncaster, Oxford and Brighton, they routinely have three or four people protesting outside every day.
Some are from the Catholic organisation Good Counsel Network. Others are part of a group called Abort 67. Their spokesman tells me “most of our volunteers are Christians – but we also have Muslim, atheist, agnostic and pagans”. The same man, Andrew Stephenson, explains that they have between six to 10 people at each protest and are hoping to ramp up. The images on their particular placards are so gruesome, The Telegraph cannot link to its site nor use most of the group’s photos.
And others are just freelance ‘Christians’.
You might be wondering why I’ve put inverted commas around the word Christian throughout this article, whenever I’ve mentioned anyone protesting outside these places in the name of their faith. It is because they are being anything but Christian.
Christianity, and acts done in the name of it, should have charity, love, kindness and respect in their DNA.
These people are badgering or silently shaming women as they walk into have a legal medical procedure. How is that Christian?
Moreover, how is it effective?
As Murphy says to me: “This people aren’t protesting. It’s about haranguing women on a s*** day. But these people use freedom of speech as their defence.”
So let me share some of the quotes from women walking into BPAS abortion clinics over the last two years – who were faced with these supposedly ‘Christian’ protestors:
“Having leaflets shoved in my face disregarding a much-thought about decision and being told I’d be ‘prayed for’ is an invasion of privacy in my view tantamount to harassment.”
“When arriving [at the clinic] people were outside with signs. It made me scared to come in and was physically shaking. They shouldn’t be allowed to stand outside and people to be made to feel like this.”
“I had always heard of people protesting abortion clinics but never imagined that someone would use God and religion as a guise to confront me with judgement and intimidation. Making the choice to have an abortion is a very personal decision. It takes time and reflecting and weighing and exploring all of your options and coming to the best one for yourself and your family.”
Or have a read of this woman’s recent account of going to a Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing, faced with these protestors. In a nutshell – she felt “emotionally blackmailed”. It makes for bleak and sobering reading.
You are just being selfish
So to all these protestors, barricading clinics in the name of decent and loving faiths, I say this: Do these testimonies read like a resounding success?
Or rather, does it read like you are mentally scarring these women – which is surely the antithesis of Christianity or indeed what Jesus would have wanted?
Murphy told me she and her many BPAS colleagues have never known a woman change her mind because of these ‘Christian’ protestors.
Sure, she knows women who have been so upset by them they have gone home. But, then they come back at another time to have an abortion when it’s ‘safe’.
In fact, the only thing these ‘Christians’ are achieving is giving millions of other brilliant kind-hearted Christians a very bad name indeed. These protests are one of the most selfish and cruel acts in the name of religion that I can think of happening in Britain today.
My Telegraph colleague, Tim Stanley, who has just penned a piece about his frustration that Oxford University shut down a debate on abortion, is also a Catholic. Here is his definition of what Christianity means to him:
“To be a Christian essentially means to accept that Jesus Christ died for your sins. Which means that no matter how difficult life may get, or how much you may doubt your own worth, somebody loves you enough to die for you. When you’re a Christian, you are never alone.”
“You are never alone.” Well I wonder how alone these women feel as they walk into these clinics, shamed by so-called ‘Christians’.
I know who should really be hanging their heads in shame.
This article first appeared in The Telegraph on November 20 2014