40 Days of This? Talking to Religious Anti-Abortionists at St Mary’s Hospital

40 Days for Life is a religious anti-abortion campaign that protests outside clinics providing abortions in the hope of changing the minds of women scheduled for, or considering, the procedure. Between 27th September and 5th November 40 Days activists are holding daily silent ‘vigils’ outside St Mary’s Community Hospital, where the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) run their clinic. Feminist blogger Lucy Schorn visited St Mary’s to speak to one of the protesters and find out more.

Last week, I met a man called Mike, campaigning to ‘end abortion’ outside my local hospital, St Mary’s. Mike believes abortion is evil. He is part of a worldwide religious campaign called 40 Days for Life, which calls upon people of faith to “draw attention to the evil of abortion” over a 40 day period, through prayer, fasting, vigil and “community outreach”. He and the two women with him aren’t protesting, but praying, they tell me.

Who can argue with someone simply wanting to pray?

Flyers being distributed outside the BPAS clinic at St Mary’s Community Hospital by 40 Days for Life protesters. Image: Lucy Schorn.

The problem is 40 Days for Life campaigners don’t ‘just pray’. Their ‘vigil’ takes place only a few yards from an abortion clinic, next to a sign that says “END ABORTION”.

At the same time, they are handing out leaflets that ask you not to “HURT YOUR CHILD” because if you do, “you will later regret it”. Another leaflet is entitled “Believe in Yourself & Follow Your Heart”, followed by the plea to “Choose Life for Your Baby!” directly underneath.

It seems somewhat dishonest to suggest this campaign is a simple act of prayer. 40 Days for Life specifically targets abortion clinics, staff and patients, and the local community and while it may involve prayer, it is clearly more than that.

I wanted to know more about the views held by Mike and his fellow campaigners on abortion.

What should pregnant women whose pregnancies are emotionally or physically wrong for them or the baby do as an alternative to abortion?

‘Reconsider.’ said Mike. ‘Adoption…There are probably very difficult, trying circumstances for some people, but some people…it’s just a way of, Well I don’t want it, so take it away.’

Does Mike advocate the use of contraception to avoid unplanned pregnancy?

‘As Catholics’, he said – referring to himself and the two women he is with – ‘we don’t agree with contraception…There’s family-planning where you’re still open to life, but it’s all done with rhythm and cycles and things like that, it’s a natural family planning method. And people also say trust in God. If He gives you a child He will give you the means to look after it.’

However, these methods of natural family planning have many disadvantages, including unreliability, not protecting against STIs, and the risk of being disrupted by factors such as illness, travel, lifestyle and so on. It seems unfair to expect women to use an unreliable method of avoiding pregnancy and then refuse them an abortion if the method fails.

Are there any circumstances Mike and his peers might consider an abortion appropriate, if not essential? What about a woman who becomes pregnant after being raped?

‘Very difficult,’ Mike said. ‘It’s not for us to judge but we say it’s not right…yeah it’s awful but I don’t really know… You need the wisdom of Solomon to do that one, but it is very difficult.’

I asked if abortion is appropriate here in cases of rape, but Mike said no.

‘But that’s one in millions’ he said. ‘There are loads of babies being killed needlessly…now, even the law of abortion is flouted. They say it would affect the mental well-being of the mother if she had this pregnancy. Really? You have to have two independent doctors and all this and I’m sure that doesn’t always happen.’

Rape Crisis reports that rape isn’t quiet as rare as Mike seems to think it is. Approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales alone every year; that’s roughly 11 rapes (of adults alone) every hour.

But even putting cases of pregnancy as a result of rape aside, is abortion appropriate if a pregnancy is going to endanger a woman’s physical health? I asked Mike about this.

‘Yeah, that’s another difficult one…yeah. Ummm. I’m not sure what the church’s ruling or teaching is on that but basically abortion isn’t right.’

‘So there’s not really any situation where you consider it is right?’ I asked. Mike confirmed there isn’t.

He continued, ‘There are some people who use abortion as a way of birth control: Oh no, I don’t want a baby now and I’m pregnant. So all we’re doing really is just trying to pray.’

Even if you accept the 40 Days for Life movement on its own terms, there has been a lot of local opposition to the campaign from the community. Even in the short time I stood talking to Mike, a number of people showed their disgust as they walked past. Pro-choice supporters have countered the campaign on several occasions, holding banners that demonstrate support for women accessing the BPAS clinic, and I understand further counter-protests are being planned locally.

The CEO of Aurora New Dawn, a regional charity offering safety, support, advocacy and empowerment to survivors of domestic abuse, stalking and sexual violence, recently wrote an open letter asking the campaigners to:

…take a step back from protests outside abortion providers like the clinic at St Mary’s Community Hospital in Portsmouth run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). Like BPAS, I’m asking you to Back Off: to pray in your own space, or indeed, any space other than outside an abortion provider…. I’m asking you to understand that just as it isn’t my right to tell you your beliefs are wrong, it is not your right to attempt to emotionally manipulate, intimidate or scare women on a day that is already difficult enough.

I wonder why Mike and the 40 Days for Life campaigners feel so strongly about the rights of an unborn child, yet so little about the rights of living, adult women.

As I walked away, one of the women put a small card in my hand and asked me to ‘spiritually adopt a child’. At first her meaning wasn’t quite clear to me, but after looking at the card, I see that I am being asked to adopt the soul of an aborted foetus.

I found this very upsetting. To pray for women who are not asking for your approval or prayer seems disrespectful enough, as does using the right to protest as a cover for intimidating vulnerable women. But to suggest to a complete stranger and passers-by that they ‘spiritually adopt’ the souls of aborted foetuses in plain sight of those women is abhorrent.

As I headed home, I had one question in mind. How much of the 40 Days of Life campaign is about the desire to save human lives, and how much is simply about wanting to control them?

After talking to Mike, I think I know the answer.

The original version of this article appeared on Savage Fringe, a feminist blog.