Yesterday, Robert Colquhoun of 40 Days For Life managed to overcome his severe media aversion to make an appearance on Radio 4’s Today Programme, where he was interviewed along with Ann Furedi of BPAS. The results were interesting, less for what he said than for the difficulty he seemed to have in making any positive statements at all. On this showing, although the UK pro-life movement seems to be growing more aggressive, it isn’t at all confident that the public shares its aims – rightly so, given that polling data consistently shows extensive support for a woman’s right to choose. Below, I’ve made a transcript of the discussion, with a few of my own comments threaded through:
Justin Webb Can we start by working out if we can have any agreement about what is acceptable in the way of protest, because abortion upsets people, they want to make their voice heard and known. Robert Colquhoun, what do you think is the legitimate way that that can be done?
Robert Colquhoun What we have here in London is we have a peaceful, a prayerful and a legal vigil, and we work very well with the police in ensuring that behaviour is extremely good during the campaign and I think any assertion that there is any harassment or intimidation as a part of our campaign is very, very inaccurate.
Not quite an answer to the question.
JW So it’s OK, or you think it should be considered OK, for protesters simply to walk with a women who’s going up to the door and stand next to her and offer her literature? You think that should be done?
RC What the essence of our campaign is…
Again, not an answer.
JW Just on that point, you think that should be done?
RC Well we do have people praying, we also have people offering hope to show that there is a love out there. The essence is that there is love out there that can help you choose life for your unborn child.
There’s love out there, apparently, but still no answer. Webb tries another line of questioning:
JW It’s the direct contact I suppose, and BPAS have surveyed women who’ve been in and got them to write down their experiences. I’ll just read you one: “The man by the fence followed me to the door with leaflets and asked why I wouldn’t speak to him. He waited until the intercom answered.” Now, potentially that woman might have been a rape victim, she might have been a victim of incest, she might have already been in desperate emotional turmoil. Is it acceptable, do you encourage your people to speak directly to those women?
RC Some of the women have been spoken to, and we’ve seen wonderful transformations as a result of our campaign. We’ve seen lives saved, hearts and minds inspired, and many people have been very thankful for the help that we have offered. And yes it is considered controversial by some people, but I think that love – what we are intending to do is show there’s a love out there that can help you choose life as well.
40 Days For Life confirms that is does approach women, as described in the account given to BPAS. It’s not just peaceful prayer – the organisation really is pursuing women up to the doors of the clinic. I’d be very interesting in hearing more from these people who are thankful for the help 40 Days offers, too, as well as getting a bit more detail on what that help consists of. The voice of the “turnaround” is disturbingly absent from this debate, although 40 Days seems very willing to speak for her.
JW Ann Furedi, they do have a right, don’t they, if it’s not aggressively done, and you can talk to someone who’s on the public street?
Ann Furedi They absolutely do. And to be perfectly clear, I support their right to freedom of expression as I support everybody else’s and I also support their right to protest, and I’ve been on many a protest myself. But, you know, what I’m saying here is not that this protest that they’re carrying out is unlawful. It’s just really wrong. If you want to have a debate about the issues, and it is a controversial issue – if you want to have a have a debate about abortion, that’s great. Have one. Debate me, debate my policy team, debate other people who have strong views on it. But for heaven’s sake, leave the women alone who are coming to our clinic. Because they’re not coming because they think abortion is right, they’re coming because they need medical help.
JW But address that point Robert Colquhoun’s just made, that in some circumstances, after this conversation, women have changed their mind.
AF Well I think it may very well be the case that if you are pinned to the wall with someone haranguing you with a leaflet, you will say all kinds of things to get out of that situation. But maybe let’s say some women have changed their mind, but that really doesn’t make what they’re doing right. I think that frankly it would be far better if they took their love somewhere else and had a debate with people who wanted to have it, not women who are coming to access a lawful service.
Ann Furedi nobly refrains from telling 40 Days where they can stick their love.
JW Can I ask you Mr Colquhoun, what are you actually aiming for? Are you trying to stop everyone having abortion in all circumstances?
RC The essence of why we are there, um. Abortions don’t happen in parliament, they don’t happen in the courts, they happen in the local community. People at the vigil are not there to judge, they’re not there to impose themselves. They’re there to pray and to offer help…
You might notice, again, that this isn’t an answer to the question that Justin Webb has asked.
JW But are you opposed to abortions in all circumstances for everyone? You want to close these clinics down?
RC I believe that abortion leads to the destruction of an unborn child.
And another non-answer. It’s almost as if he’s trying to avoid saying he wants to stop abortion in all circumstances.
JW In all circumstances, you’d like to ban it?
RC I, uh. Well in this country abortion is partially decriminalised, and what we see is that 98% of abortions are happening on the grounds of the mental health clause of the abortion act. However, a major review by the Royal College Of Psychiatrists showed that there’s no evidence that the continuation of a pregnancy ever involves risk to the mental health of the mother…
And another one! The reference to the RCP review is interesting: it shows anti-choice activists have been forced to back away from their assertions that abortion causes trauma, because there’s no evidence that it does. Instead they’re now saying that pregnancy and birth are no more damaging than abortion (tacitly admitting that pregnancy isn’t an inevitably positive experience). However, even this doesn’t support their case, because the RCP report doesn’t include data on the mental health outcomes for women who want a termination but are prevented from having one.
JW It’s a simple question. It’s important too, because you look at what happens in America where people feel very extreme, have very extreme views about this, and it’s led to appalling conflict. Just, you are opposed, your group is opposed to abortion in all circumstances? Yes or no.
RC Yes. We believe that abortion is wrong. But we believe that through peaceful, through prayerful and through legal means that we can provide a solution to the crisis…
Fourth try by Webb, and finally there’s an answer. Is it really so hard for a pro-life campaigner to come out and say he’s against abortion?
JW What happens in America Ann Furedi, as you will know better than I do, is that people are employed, organisations employ people to escort people into clinics. It happens particularly in some states where it’s hugely controversial, but it’s actually quite widespread. Are you considering that here?
AF I think at the moment we frankly do not have the need for it. Usually the demonstrations that we’re seeing are not well supported, and in fact it’s interesting that this group at Bedford Square have been complaining that they themselves have been harangued by passers-by. At the moment, I just think we have to understand that this is a tiny minority of people who are protesting against a legal service. But even that tiny minority can add enormously to the distress of women who are already in a difficult situation, and they should think really carefully about whether what they feel they’re doing is Christian.
And maybe this is why Colquhoun has trouble explicitly stating his beliefs: because he knows that absolute opposition to abortion is actually a pretty unpopular position.
JW In a word Mr Colquhoun, you’re not going to stop?
RC Well we have until the first of April for our 40 Days For Life Campaign. We’re in 250 cities around the world, more than 5,000 women from around the world have decided to keep their babies, and we’ve also seen 23 abortion clinics closed as a result of our campaigns.
Note how the closing of clinics with which Colquhoun credits 40 Days is actually counter to the organisation’s claims that it wants to give women the “choice” to continue their pregnancy. It doesn’t: it wants to take away the choice to have an abortion.
JW Robert Colquhoun, Ann Furedi, thank you both very much.