A conversation with a pro-life campaigner

Yesterday, I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the rise in the use of invasive tactics by anti-choice protesters. It works as a companion piece to my column in the latest issue of New Humanist about the parliamentary advances made by opponents of abortion: while campaigners like Dorries have found a way to introduce the language of the anti-choice argument to the House Of Commons, groups such as 40 Days For Life seem to have become increasingly forceful in the way they impose their opinion on women seeking abortions.

For the piece, I spoke to both Clare Murphy of BPAS and Robert Colquhoun, the leader of 40 Days For Life London. 40 Days has been holding a “prayer vigil” outside BPAS’s Bedford Square branch. Murphy and several others consider their presence to be intimidatory: she said that protesters had “encircled” women by the doors to the clinic and photographed patients entering the building. For his part, Colquhoun said that 40 Days only uses cameras to film themselves for their own protection, having been threatened previously; he also stressed that participants in the vigil sign up to the Statement Of Peace available on his organisation’s website.

I included Colquhoun’s comments in the piece – not just as a form “right of reply”, but because I think it’s important that anti-abortion campaigners are represented fairly in this debate. When I rang him, he was extremely reluctant to speak, citing previous bad experiences with the media (specifically the Guardian and the Mail) and saying that he wasn’t interested in “being libelled”. (40 Days For Life succeeded in getting the Guardian to publish a correction to a previous article.)

At that point I could have ended the conversation in good conscience and written up the piece with the line, “40 Days For Life was approached but refused to comment.” But I felt that the accusations of harassment were sufficiently serious that I should press him for clarification: so I assured him that I’m generally very averse to committing libel, and was able to get him to answer some questions.

He felt that the Statement Of Peace was definitive of 40 Days For Life’s actions. However, the Statement doesn’t include anything asking attendees to refrain from filming women, and I asked him several times if he thought it would be appropriate to amend the Statement in order to exclude the use of cameras as a form of intimidation. (I also questioned whether a .docx file buried on a subpage of the 40 Days website was really the best way to promote a key statement of ethics.) He wouldn’t commit to expanding the Statement’s definition of harassment, and for me, that was the key to the piece. He seemed anxious to end the call; I said thank you and rang off.

Then, being the professional journalist I am, I realised that I needed to confirm Colquhoun’s surname (he’s only referred to on the 40 Days site as “Robert”), so I called back. This was the really interesting part, bearing in mind that I had called him to address charges of harassment and invasion of privacy by his organisation. Robert didn’t want to give me his surname. I explained that his reply would seem more substantial if I was able to attach his full name, but at that point he wasn’t interested in being identified. He said, “I’ve had enough of being harassed,” and put the phone down.

Obviously, I wouldn’t class what I did as harassment: it was a five minute phonecall to a number published on a website. A few minutes later Colquhoun called back and asked for my email address so he could send me a written statement – which included his full name, so in the end I did have everything I needed to represent his position in the piece.

There’s one more thing I’d like to add, besides recording this brief flurry of defensiveness on the part of a public campaigner. When I had an unplanned pregnancy (aged 20 and at university), I considered my options and I chose not to have an abortion. No one persuaded me. No one needed to tell me that carrying this baby to term was a possibility – I knew what my options were, and even though the timing was appalling, I knew I had a loving and stable relationship with my partner, and that our families had the emotional and financial wherewithal to keep us afloat.

My GP made sure I was fully informed, but never stressed one course over another. If my financial or social conditions had been different, my choice might have been different: the only good decision is one based on a woman’s personal assessment of her circumstances. No one has any business doing what 40 Days has been doing and interfering from the other side of the street.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012; photo (showing a 40 Days For Life protest in Penescola) by hbimedialibrary, used under Creative Commons

8 thoughts on “A conversation with a pro-life campaigner

  1. Hi Sarah,

    I’m pleased you had the support you needed for you baby and as a well educated person I’m sure you were well are of your “options”.

    However if you ever see a 40 days for life leaflet which shows a woman and her baby (this is the London one) well that young black lady was not so fortunate. She found herself pregnant- the father deserted her, her parents said if she had the child she would be kicked out of the house and she had no money. She really wanted to keep her baby. Some may say effectively she had “no option”. While this may be debatable it seems all those who are Pro-choice should be outraged at this, sure she could get an abortion and the tax payer would pick up that bill but that wasn’t her first choice. She wanted to have her baby. But having her baby would leave her homeless.

    In one of these very same situations you describe as having no business for “interfering” as you called it, someone reached out to her, arranged her financial help and put her up in their own house and helped her care for her baby. I’m glad she interfered and if your Pro-Choice so should you too because without the interference her true right choice may not have happened.

    However you say that “the only good decision is one based on a woman’s personal assessment of her circumstances. ”

    But this isn’t to choose at all! If you only do what is dictated by your circumstances you are coerced by your position into doing something! Offering women an abortion even though they want to have their baby but feel like they have no choice doesn’t seem like society is doing the best we can for these women.

    Would you not agree?

  2. Mothers should be able to find support when they find themselves and there are many organisations which offer this, from social services to individual churches and charities. None of these organisations use the deceitful or invasive tactics associated with 40 Days For Life. For example, one can offer financial assistance without attempting to scare women with lies about the side effects of abortion. One can make women aware of resources that will help them without filming them, harassing them outside clinics or asking women questions about their intimate medical history. In other words: 40 Days For Life’s tactics are a very poor match with your vaunted concern for the women involved, given that 40DFL only appear capable of compassion for those who are making a choice they agree with.

  3. I would dispute that there are many organisations who help these women, but even if they are some women obviously don’t find them as the case in point shows. So surely you must agree in this case it was a good thing that 40 Days for Life and affiliates were there to help this woman and her child?

    Actually 40 Days for Life and affiliates offer counseling and other services for post-abortive women as many of them suffer from PTSD and need to go through a grieving process i.e. have a service on the day their baby would have been born.

    As for the false information about cancer and such – there are many medical journals which affirm this and some which deny it so it is a bit of a step out to say its a lie.

    It’s interesting that you were given two opposing perspectives on why the camera was there which you state in your article. However now you seem to have made up your mind why it was there so disregarding one source for some reason.

    I’m curious as a journalist who has written an article on 40 days for life and who makes claims about what happens there, you have surely been there yourself haven’t you?

  4. I find 40 Days For Life’s responses so far on the filming issue rather-self contradictory. (Only there for self-protection… or it was someone unfiliated doing the filming… or 40DFL would never film, but won’t preclude filming on the Statement Of Peace.) Your claims of abortion side-effects are not backed up, I see, and I strongly disagree that PTSD is a specific issue for women who have undergone abortion: it can be a complication of childbirth, or miscarriage, and it is rare in all these circumstances. I imagine that women are significantly more likely to feel traumatised if they are exposed to guilt-laden rhetoric such as that pushed by 40DFL. I’d be interested in hearing from a “turnaround” about the care she experienced from 40DFL, but much less interested in hearing about her from an interested third party.

  5. Thanks Sarah, I will ask around and see if anyone that have been helped by these charities would like to do an interview with you!

    is the best way to contact you on here?

  6. I hope you don’t take any of the criticisms I write here personally but I do feel the whole article is misleading because the premise, that 40 Days for Life in London are using cameras to intimidate women, is as far as I am aware false. Other than BPAS’s word, have you got any solid evidence of this?

    ‘He wouldn’t commit to expanding the Statement’s definition of harassment, and for me, that was the key to the piece.’

    As far as I am aware, Robert has no power to change the statement’s definition of harassment. I believe these statements originate from the US, but I stand to be corrected. In any case why would he need to include something in the statement of peace when it is not being done anyway? Robert has clearly said that any cameras they use are for security purposes. I understand the cameras BPAS were complaining about that were filming patients were part of the TV channel EWTN who were filming a piece on the 40 Days for Life campaign.

    ‘I also questioned whether a .docx file buried on a subpage of the 40 Days website was really the best way to promote a key statement of ethics.’

    What was his answer? The statement of peace is displayed when you attempt to sign up to the website and you are not allowed to join the vigil unless you agree to it.

    I do also think it is wrong to label anti-abortion campaigners ‘anti-choice’ campaigners as you did in the first sentence. After all, in a different context, you have previously written in an article on this website ‘The choice agenda is only good for the people doing the choosing’


    It seems you believe that a woman has a right to choose to terminate her pregnancy but not what school she can send her child to should she give birth. I don’t think this is inconsistent, but it is rather confusing if you label yourself ‘pro-choice’ and perhaps you should be clear that you only believe in choice when it comes to the decision to terminate a pregnancy.

  7. Had Colquhoun mentioned that the Statement Of Peace was something he wasn’t authorised to change, I’d have gladly featured the detail. He didn’t, however — perhaps because acknowledging link to the US anti-choice movement is deeply impolitic at the moment. As for the filming issue, I think both 40DFL and BPAS agree that someone was filming; the question is whether they were an affiliate of 40 Days or an anti-choice activist acting alone but standing 40 Days. (If the latter, it’s still troubling that 40 Day’s presence could act as an encouragement to such blatant harassment.)

    Regarding my earlier post on the choice agenda and marketisation of education: it’s hardly relevant here, except inasmuch as my point was that talking of “choice” while disregarding context is inane. In the context of abortion, the context of that choice is the woman’s personal situation: her support network, her housing status, her financial security. All things that campaigners like 40 Days disregard because they believe abortion is always wrong.

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