a matter of life and death

4 'I know in my heart that God wants me to stop women killing their children' 4
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Indy Lifestyle Online
British anti-abortion activists have so far shunned the violence of US pro-lifers. But their disturbing presence is ever more insistent.

"pray for doctors and nurses, many of them abandon their standards. They fail to appreciate the patient in the mother's womb..." The chanting buzz of the prayer accompanies me as I slip quietly into the Marie Stopes Clinic off Ealing Broadway, in west London, at 8.30 on a grey Saturday morning.

"Let me help you," calls a voice. I stop in my tracks. "Let God help you."

Through the hedge that separates the grounds of the clinic from the pavement, the owner of the voice is peering at me, her beady black eyes imploring me to turn back. I acquiesce.

A woman with pointed features and long stringy hair puts her hand on my arm. "Are you pregnant?" she asks, her tone sugary and evangelical.

"Yes," I say.

"And are you going in there for you know, you know..." she says, pointing at my stomach.

"For what?" I say.

"For, you know, an abortion."

"Yes," I say.

"The Lord can help you," she says.

Her name is Helen. The Lord, Helen tells me, loves my unborn child. It is of no relevance that the father of the child has abandoned me. It is of no relevance that I am impecunious or that I actually don't want this child. God, she tells me, clutching her rosary, has an answer for it all.

On the ground is a bunch of wilting red carnations. "They are in memory of the babies that have been murdered in there," she says, pointing to the front door of the clinic.

Further along the pavement, Helen's colleague Marie abandons her post and her chanting of the "Prayer for the Mother and the Unborn Child" to come and help her save me from the hands of the surgeon within. Together, they ply me with information. My baby will be smiling in my womb, imitating my facial expressions, they tell me, thrusting a brochure called Life Before Birth into my hands, with pictures of foetuses at various stages of development. I can take it no longer.

"I'm not pregnant," I say. "I'm a journalist.'' Undeterred, they continue their crusade, breaking off every now and then to stop the women hurrying past them into the clinic.

I am handed a leaflet on PAS, post- abortion syndrome, brought to deter women from going ahead with their terminations. Sexual dysfunction, nightmares, inability to sustain intimate relationships, suicidal impulses, they are told, could all be in store for them. A torn cervix, a perforated uterus, an anaesthetic accident are possibilities.

And then the icing on the cake, in huge black letters: "What your abortionist won't tell you about breast cancer... BREAST CANCER HAS INCREASED 50 PER CENT SINCE ABORTION WAS LEGALISED."

The women, and men, on the pavement outside the Marie Stopes Clinic every Saturday morning, are all committed Catholics. "It is my duty," says Helen. "I have saved 18 babies," says Marie.

"They shouldn't fornicate if they don't want this to happen," says the poker-faced woman in the headscarf.

"I know in my heart that God wants me to stop women killing their children," says a male theology student from Zaire.

The anti-abortionists, some of them affiliated with the Life organisation, which campaigns against abortion, others with Spuc, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, are unaware of or uninterested in the additional trauma they cause to the women about to undergo surgery.

"Tell them to fuck off," yells a woman, rushing into the reception area. "I've come all the way from Ireland for this. I don't need them bloody well harassing me in my predicament."

Nor, apparently, are the anti-abortionists aware of the potentially disastrous effect of their actions. The following Saturday a young black woman tells a South American anti-abortionist that she has an ectopic pregnancy, a pregnancy outside the womb, where failure to remove the foetus can prove fatal. "If the baby grows too large," she says, "the tube will burst and that will be the end of me." A picture of the Madonna in her hand, the anti- abortionist tells her: "Don't do it. Come with me to a spiritual healing session. Jesus will help you."

But Helen comes running up with a colour picture of an ectopic pregnancy. "It's OK," she says to the woman, "terminating a pregnancy like this is not really an abortion. It's not your fault."

Bimler Vasistha of the Ealing clinic says: "We warn our clients that they are there. We tell them to just ignore them. From time to time I call the police, but there's not much they can do if no actual bodily harm is caused."

In Britain, unlike the US, where anti-abortionists have shot dead five clinic employees and injured 12 since 1991, the principal damage caused by anti-abortionists is psychological. The information they provide, for example, on breast cancer statistics among women who have had terminations is deeply alarmist. "The evidence to support the claim that women in the age bracket of those likely to seek terminations have a higher risk of developing breast cancer is just not there," says Valerie Beral, director of the epidemiology unit of Imperial Cancer Research.

"Women often come to us in a state of distress,"says David Nolan, information officer of the Birth Control Trust. "They ask us to escort them into the clinics, to avoid being harassed by anti-abortionists."

Despite the generally non-militant nature of anti-abortion activists in Britain, a terrifying and little-reported incident last year raises the question whether violent anti-abortion activities will seep into Britain.

"When they called to tell us about the bomb scare," says Lynn Pavey, of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service in Brighton, "We were in the middle of our operating list. We had to bring out women who were having a late termination and were in labour and leave them on trolleys in the car park. We were given 10 minutes to evacuate the building and we were all pretty terrified. At the same time there was an acid attack on the cars of clients and staff outside the clinic. Our staff coped pretty well, but we do worry about the future security of the clinic. We've just had panic buttons installed that are directly linked to the police. And if it wasn't for concerns about our clients' confidentiality, we'd have video cameras installed as well."

Pavey says there have been several subsequent attacks on the cars of local gynaecologists who are known to perform abortions. No one has claimed responsibility for these or for last August's bomb scare, and both Spuc, with its 40,000 members, and Life, with 35,000 members, advocate non-violent protest. Last year's violent clashes between pro-choice and pro-life activists outside the International Planned Parenthood Federation in Regent's Park, London, were not officially linked to either group.

"But they happened just after members of Operation Rescue, a militant American organisation, had visited this country," David Nolan says.

Members of Human Life International, the other big American anti-abortion group, cancelled a conference in this country last year, but it is deeply perturbing that US anti-abortionists are even entertaining the thought of bringing their influence to bear in Britain.

Not, of course, that Human Life International or Operation Rescue are officially connected with any of the 169 abortion-linked attacks in the US since 1982. It's just that, last August, after the shooting of two gynaecologists at a clinic outside Boston, Don Freshman, director of Operation Rescue, said, "Up until now, the killings have all been on one side, with 30 million dead babies... On the other hand, there are two dead doctors. Maybe the balance is starting to redress."

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