Channel 4’s investigation into the “anti-abortion” movement, which will be screened tonight, has already made headlines. “Undercover film exposes extreme ‘pro life’ boss lying”, said the Mail on Sunday. Speaking as the boss in question – I work for the Good Counsel Network (GCN), and was secretly filmed by the programme-makers – I agree that the Dispatches documentary is revealing. But what it reveals is a campaign to misrepresent pro-life vigils. And it will be women who suffer as a result.
The undercover footage achieves little. The reporters managed to film the 40 Days for Life conference – the entirety of which was already available on YouTube. They managed to prove that GCN discusses all the studies which link and don’t link breast cancer and abortion (our distribution of this information has been documented in the press since 1998). And they have shown definitively that Abort 67 display graphic images in the street – which, again, everyone already knows. It doesn’t look like much of an investigation.
More interesting is what the programme won’t mention. In 2014, BPAS launched a #BackOff campaign to introduce buffer zones outside abortion clinics, preventing pro-life vigils from offering support. The campaign relies on research from two pro-choice academics, Dr Pam Lowe and Dr Graeme Hayes of Aston University.
But their research has a key flaw: it pays little attention to the many women who, thanks to the work of pro-life vigils, decide to keep their babies. At GCN’s vigils alone, in a good year, over 100 women will accept our help and continue their pregnancies.
You would have thought these “turnarounds” would be of interest to researchers of buffer zones – and to documentary-makers. But their experiences have been consistently overlooked.
The pro-choice researchers, and the #BackOff campaigners, prefer to base their arguments on questionnaires filled in at BPAS centres. BPAS cannot say whether the forms were filled in by a client, a staff member, the postman, or a man bringing in a women under duress for an abortion. For all we know, the forms could have been filled in by any of the above.
If researchers did interview the “turnarounds”, they would discover some striking truths. I know, because I have worked with these women. For a start, many say that they felt like they had no choice at all, and that abortion was the only choice on offer at the abortion centres. Like Sally, who was put under intense pressure by her family all the way into the abortion centre. She got out through the fire escape, found GCN, and kept her baby with our support.
Or Jacquie, whose partner told her she must have an abortion or he would throw her out to sleep on the street. Like many other illegal immigrants, foreign students and workers, she had no rights to housing or benefits. We housed Jacquie because no-one else could.
The researchers would meet Linda, who was carrying a baby that was the result of an affair. Nobody at the abortion centre had the time or resources to find her the support she needed to untangle that difficult situation. Should she therefore have been left with no option except abortion?
They would meet Kathy, who was afraid to continue her pregnancy because social services had already told her the baby would be taken into care at birth. We were able to support her so that she could stay with the baby after birth. And Isabel, whose partner was bullying her to terminate the pregnancy. She had taken the first pill, but changed her mind about the abortion when she found pro-lifers would support her. The Marie Stopes centre she went to hadn’t offered her the help she needed.
Somehow, these stories are ignored by pro-choice campaigners. They are ignored, too, in the Dispatches programme. But we should remember them, as the campaign for buffer zones around abortion clinics steps up a gear.
That, after all, will be the effect of the film. Although it reveals nothing of interest, the shady “undercover” atmosphere will set the tone, while the sombre voiceover will quietly insinuate that vigils are harassment of women. The truth is that buffer zones will make it that bit harder for women in difficult situations to find the support they need.
At least one good thing has come from the Dispatches programme. When another pro-life group told me they’d rumbled an undercover reporter, I asked them: “Are you going to send her packing?” “No,” they replied. “We need an extra person to hold one side of our banner. She’s helping us keep the witness going.”
Clare McCullough is the founder of the Good Counsel Network