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.