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!"

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