The public image of pro-life vigils seems pretty well-established: religious bigots harassing vulnerable women at abortion clinics, preventing them from getting the services they need.
I would probably agree, if I didn’t have any more to go on. But I do.
The memory is vivid and still painful. I remember the numbness of the journey to the clinic for an initial appointment. My legs felt as if I’d run a marathon – heavy, incapable of properly supporting my weight. There was an odd inability to focus that descended on me that morning: like the sick feeling you get when you’ve been up all night, but with an awful, near-constant rush of deep, deep dread. I can’t describe the feeling of aloneness and abandonment I felt on the train to the clinic: people going about their daily business, glancing at me without sensing that anything was wrong.
Like many women considering abortion, choice was a luxury I didn’t have. The father of the child would not meet me to discuss the pregnancy. He refused to accept any responsibility, saying that he wouldn’t be spending a “single hour” with the child, if born. All those I told encouraged me to go through with it to keep my job. Even my best friend. When I rang a major abortion provider to ask about alternatives, I was told: “We only do abortion”.
I didn’t want to go through with it, but no one gave me a choice. Even those call themselves “pro-choice”, the protestors supporting the abortion clinics, didn’t offer me help. They only seem to shield people as they’re going into the clinic. The only help I was offered was from the father of the child, who said he would come to stay with me for two weeks after I had gone through with the procedure. What kind of choice is that? As an aside, I have often reflected that the only agenda served by abortion was his. If that’s feminism, you can keep it.
The only people willing and able to help were members of the pro-life vigil. They offered me a leaflet on the way into my appointment and told me they could help me. I didn’t believe them. Can you blame me? If those closest to you don’t offer unconditional care, then why would a stranger? I have since learnt it is because they truly love and care for women. After a few days of anguish, I decided to see what they could do. The answer was a lot: housing, clothing, food and moral and spiritual support were all provided as needed.
This may be the first time you have heard the story of someone like me. Someone grateful for what the “pavement counsellors” do. The level of disinformation around this issue is breathtaking. Much of what is written is flatly false, and the little truth that is reported gets filtered through an ideological lens so thick that the end result simply doesn’t reflect the reality. We are told that “harassment” is happening – but where is the evidence? At Ealing, for instance, there has not been a single arrest in 23 years of vigils.
My baby is alive today because of these “bigots”. I owe them the love of my life, the reason for my existence. And my story is far from unique. Over the last ten years, more than 500 women have decided not to go through with their abortions in Ealing alone. Why? Because someone was there to offer them help.
I want people considering this issue to try to put themselves in my position. Try to imagine the relief I felt when I learned that there were people around who would assist me to have my baby. Many of the women presenting for abortion wouldn’t be there if their economic or social circumstances were different. Many can’t even access benefits legally. Is this society’s idea of choice? Should we deny these women the possibility of help? Even more, criminalise people from offering such help?
I know there are those who don’t share my experience. Those who don’t seem to have felt any apprehension or remorse about their abortions. People for whom the presence of a group of people praying felt like harassment or intimidation, or like judgement. I can identify with their anger. But if the only way to stop them feeling like this is to prevent people from offering help outside a clinic, it is too high a price to pay. Anyone authentically pro-choice should surely agree.
Much of the distaste for these vigils is down to misapprehension about what they do. But it’s also about the religious underpinning. Yes, for many of the participants, their objection to abortion is religious. But so is their desire to help struggling would-be mothers, and this is what they actually do. They recognise not everyone wants their help. But they believe some will not go through with abortion if offered an escape. Sometimes they’re right. They were right about me. For my part, I’d say that their overriding belief was that abortion is a symptom of a society which fails to support and value motherhood, and is always a sad thing.
Ealing Council have just imposed a Public Space Protection Order around the local abortion clinic. This will make it a criminal offence to offer leaflets, pray in any way or dissuade or persuade a woman going for an abortion. The Home Secretary is currently consulting on the same subject. Politicians, both local and national, seem only to listen to abortion providers. I beg them to listen to the stories of women like me.
Abby Smith is a pseudonym