Hate mail and bitter words as island splits over legalising abortion

Decca Aitkenhead reports on Guernsey's battle with its conscience

"I expect," beams the hotel receptionist, "you're here to write about our flower show!" She is thrilled, but quite mistaken; as soon as I explain that it is not bougainvillaea but abortion that brings me to Guernsey, the pink smile crashes. "Oh," she winces. "That."

Abortion rarely brings anyone to Guernsey. Usually it takes them away. The island's women must travel 80 miles to the mainland in order to terminate a pregnancy, for on Guernsey, alone in the British Isles save for Northern Ireland, abortion is illegal. This week, proposals to reform the arcane 1910 law go before its parliament, the States of Deliberation, and a two-year campaign is reaching its ugly and ill-tempered climax.

The abortion debate has inflamed opinion on the island. By nature a sleepy spot, these 24 square miles off the Normandy coast exhibit all the standard traits of a close-knit, rural, largely affluent and fairly insular community. Public debate seldom elevates itself above concern about dogs on the beach. There are no political parties. But the abortion dispute has been packing public meetings, injecting vitriol into the letters pages of the press, fuelling wild conspiracy theories and inspiring hate mail. With the debate imminent, opinion in the States is finely poised, and on the island firmly polarised.

In the "pro-life" camp is a vociferous alliance of social conservatives and churchgoers, shored up by a fiery evangelical tradition. Their cause is in part a defence of the Guernsey way of life and a resistance to what many there regard as the feckless decline of a permissive mainland. Against them is an unlikely coalition of radical socialists, libertarians and ordinarily apolitical islanders. The dispute has often become highly personal.

Pippa McCathie, co-ordinator of the pro-choice campaign and a self-proclaimed socialist, bears her maverick image as a member of some "international feminist conspiracy" with something approaching relish.

She says: "Some of the hatred I've come up against is quite frightening. There are people on this island who want The Guernsey Way, and they'll hang on to it for dear life. They're very proud of themselves here. Some nasty little Guernsey man left a message on our answer machine saying it would be a good idea if we left the island, because we had become a laughing stock." She snorts. "And the mail we've had has been extraordinary."

The pro-choice campaign began in earnest last summer with an open forum addressed by, among others, the "agony aunt" Clare Rayner. Later described in a letter to the press as a "Nuremberg-style rally in support of a charter for good-time girls", the event sought to highlight the predicament of the estimated 150 women a year who travel to the mainland for an abortion. Under existing law, it is illegal to assist them (some doctors are more sympathetic than others; the penalty is up to life imprisonment, though no prosecutions have taken place since 1950), and the trip, which costs about pounds 500, is undertaken beneath a Victorian shroud of secrecy and shame.

Guernsey, believes another pro-choice campaigner, Jenny Moore ("I'm no radical! I'm not even a feminist!"), only failed to legalise abortion at the time of David Steel's Bill because in 1967 women were employed in low-paid tourism and horticultural jobs, with little power. Then, when the burgeoning financial sector brought women prosperity in the Seventies, "we could afford to go to England, so no one challenged this ridiculous state of affairs".

Bulging files in Ms McCathie's bedroom document every step in their campaign to change the law. "I have never," says Ms Moore, referring to the opposition, "seen anything like it on this island." Their chief indignation is directed at the hand-delivered anti-abortion literature, much of it lurid, which began circulating this year, and their opponents' leader, Cynthia Kennedy.

Ms Kennedy, a wealthy American, arrived on Guernsey two years ago. Rumours, hotly denied, that she was sent by the anti-abortion movement in the US have circulated ever since. She recently returned to the US with health problems (she's fund-raising, opponents mutter darkly), and her mantle has fallen to a GP, Dr Susan Wilson.

"Yes, it has been a hard campaign," she sighs. "Lately, I've started to feel dreadful - but I think, jolly good, because now we're entering into the pain of this situation with the poor women, so I'm glad. Glad. If Guernsey is battling with the dreadful situation, then good."

Guernsey women's problems, Dr Wilson believes, lie with the island's disgraceful lack of proper childcare, maternity leave and other facilities, all of which she is battling for. "Hope and future. That's what they need."

Dr Wilson is a born-again Christian. There is nothing of the bigot about her; her compassion for reluctant mothers is sincere and compelling. She is also endearingly anxious not to sound like a "headbanging American". However: "I've always believed it would take a miracle for abortion not to be legislated for in Guernsey. But I believe in the God of miracles. So if abortion isn't legislated for, I'll know who to thank." She adds: "I would love for you to mention God."

Her home, like so many others in Guernsey, is beautiful - a lush, child-centred expanse of ponds and tree-houses. It is easy to see how the charge that, by outlawing abortion, Guernsey is merely "exporting its problem", is countered by a sense that the island should be able to accommodate unplanned pregnancies - that resources can be found. This is not a land of drug-infested high-rise estates.

But perhaps the greatest obstacle facing the pro-choice campaigners is the enduring conservatism of some on the island. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the States themselves.

"Abortion terrifies the living daylights out of the deputies," says Neil McCathie, Pippa's husband and a States deputy. "This single issue has caused more controversy than anything - and they just don't know which way to jump."

When the proposal to legalise abortion up to 12 weeks goes before the States on Wednesday, the vote could go either way. But whatever the outcome, it is clear that the issue will rumble on. Even if passed, it will take two years to ratify the law.

"A year ago," says Ms Moore, "people were asking, do you think it will reach the levels we see in America? I said, don't be stupid, this is Guernsey. I wouldn't say that now."

But, for now, this is still recognisably Guernsey. Waving goodbye, Ms McCathie is insistent: "You must come to our flower show!"

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering