Dear Maya Oppenheim,
How many stories must we read about ‘anti-abortion protesters’ intimidating and harassing vulnerable women outside abortion centres? In just over a week The Independent has printed two of your articles, both strikingly similar, in fact so similar you have the same photo heading each story . . . of a group of pro-life activists in Croatia! After reading these articles one could be forgiven for thinking that pro-lifers are filling our streets like hordes of diseased rats, so it’s a shame they are so elusive you couldn’t snap a photo of any of them.
On a more serious note, have you any idea of the fear that is put in people’s minds when reading articles such as yours? Imagine the frightened pregnant teenage girl who is booking an abortion appointment this week – are you really making her life any easier by spreading these fictitious horror stories about large groups of aggressive protesters waiting outside the abortion centres ready to film her and follow her down the street shouting ‘murderer’?
Or even the residents living near these centres, how are you making them feel? Who would want a group of vigilante thugs, such as you’ve described, taking up a stand on their street corner? Is there a single part of your story which you’ve checked out for yourself or has it all come through abortion centre staff such as Marie Stopes director, Richard Bentley, whose teams ‘witness the cruel tactics they (pro-lifers) use . . . women are subjected to graphic imagery, told they’re going to hell.’ As most of us would guess, Mr Bentley may possibly have a biased view on this – isn’t it your job as a journalist to investigate a little before you report or at least report from both sides?
Everything that happens outside the abortion centres is happening on a public street. These campaigns are held for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 40 consecutive days, twice a year. Why can’t any of these outrageous claims be supported by some evidence? Where’s the videos of large groups of angry protesters screaming at women and chasing them along the road armed with cameras in one hand and plastic foetuses in the other? Your articles have conjured up these images in your readers’ heads but unless they can be substantiated then they’d be better placed in a novel and labelled clearly as fiction.
Truth be told, the boot is on the other foot. Local residents and those attending abortion appointments have become so fearful or angry after reading about alleged aggression directed at pregnant women that they have started lashing out in a pre-emptive strike. Peaceful pro-lifers up and down the country report how their signs offering help are snatched from them and thrown over hedges. Volunteers are regularly sworn at, threatened and spat upon. One Catholic deacon praying as part of 40 days for Life in Birmingham was targeted time after time by a local resident. One of these encounters was caught on camera by the young man who hoped that knowing he was being filmed would encourage the resident to behave more civilly. This resident was subsequently taken to the police station and police have stated he will be ordered to take part in restorative justice, something which will remain on his record for 5 years. Now a priest, Fr Sean Gough states ‘the sad part of it was, that the third time this man turned up to abuse me I was in the middle of a conversation with a woman who’d just undergone an abortion, she was so grateful to have someone to speak with and was thanking me – then this resident came up and his language and behaviour clearly horrified her.’ He went on to relate how, ‘A member of staff came out and witnessed the abuse but rather than phoning the police she asked the resident if he’d like to come inside and make a logged complaint which, unsurprisingly, he did’.
Volunteers have received racial and religious abuse, women have been told they will be followed home and have their throats ripped out, men have been accused of being rapists and child molesters, one terrified volunteer was pushed into a hedge, another had their house keys stolen. Young women were left with no option but to dial 999 on numerous occasions as cars or vans were driven threateningly onto the pavement where they stood leaving them fearing for their lives.
In case you are planning another article then here are some facts for you:
Before anyone is allowed to participate in a 40 Days for Life they must sign a Statement of Peace agreeing to obey the law and behave peacefully. You state that: ‘Abortion clinics in London, Birmingham, and Swindon have already been forced to call police to report protesters for infringing social distancing during the public health crisis’. With a few enquiries you would have known that leaders are being particularly careful about government guidelines – so you might want to check your source on this, and considering your article was written on day one of the campaign, when did these infringements happen? (Yes, we all guessed that’s how it would be reported but thought you’d at least give people the necessary time to commit the infringements). And how about interviewing one or two of the many, many women who have been helped by the volunteers?
Just this week one young woman who was part of the 40 Days for Life team reported how she spoke at length to a pregnant lady who told her she desperately wanted to keep her baby but was worried about being alone if she was disowned by her community for being an unmarried mum. This woman, like many others there, feel they have no choice. The only solution she was being offered was abortion which she described as the ‘hardest thing she’d ever had to do’. Do you not think women like this deserve another option? Or Carla, whose beautiful baby Betsy was born because she walked out of the abortion centre where her abortion was scheduled and accepted the help being offered her partner outside by a 40 Days for Life member. Would these women really approach the type of people you have described in your imaginative account?
As a journalist, you must be aware of the power you hold in your pen or that comes forth with each strike of your keyboard. Words can have such a huge influence over people. How seriously are you taking the responsibility you have to be reporting honestly? For the sake of the women you purport to care so much about, stop filling them with false fears and empower them with the truth. And if the truth doesn’t fit your hackneyed narrative then isn’t it about time the narrative changed?
Links to referenced Independent articles.