Maham Khan: Plastic fetuses, monks, and cake

Maham Khan“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” reads the banner greeting women as they emerge from the British pregnancy advisory service (BPAS) clinic in Bedford Square. This banner along with a handful of campaigners is part of the “40 Days for Life” campaign, a pro-life vigil praying for an end to abortion. The London branch of a larger scale operation across America, the campaign started on 28 September and ended on 6 November. Participants including nuns and monks from the Catholic Church have spent weeks outside the clinic doors of BPAS, the leading provider of independent abortions in the UK.

Some campaigners pray aloud, while others hand out leaflets and “counsel” women going inside. Lorenzo, speaking on behalf of campaign organisers in London, stated the campaign was not a protest but a peaceful vigil praying for lives that would be lost. He said: “We’re here to show women there are other choices and other options.”

These other options as detailed on their leaflets, include promises of help with accommodation, help arranging financial assistance, and help with baby sitting. They also say they can “show how you can continue studies or your job.”[1]

As well as presenting other options, campaigners are not above using emotional manipulation to target women at such a vulnerable time. As well having to hear prayers for their fetuses’ souls, women face a pile of plastic fetuses scattered on the steps to the clinic, and endure the sight of campaigner’s children as they leave.

Abigail Fitzgibbon, public policy manager for BPAS, said, “Even for a woman who is really comfortable with her decision, who knows it’s the right thing to do for what ever reason, they don’t want to see that [plastic fetuses on the floor]. And some of the protesters have brought their children and had them quite noisily playing. Obviously there are children everywhere in London, you will always see children, but to do it quite deliberately outside a clinic is quite mean.”
Siobhan, a 40 Days for Life campaigner, says: “It’s a precious gift to bring children here, because it makes a real stand to say this is life. That is a death camp [the clinic] and this is life.”

Regarding the campaign, BPAS said, “Every woman seeking support from a charity like BPAS will have personal feelings about abortion and will be trying to come to a decision that is right for her. The 40 Days for Life protesters outside the central London clinic simply make what is already a difficult time for women even more distressing. BPAS fully supports their right to protest against the abortion law, but wonders why these protesters feel that intimidating individual women is either ethical or just.”

Abigail from BPAS also expressed concerns that women may feel stigmatised by the campaign. “There’s nothing to stop women considering an abortion talking to antiabortion groups or activists before they come to see us. I think those banners just draw attention to this clinic. Women coming to talk about an abortion or having an abortion don’t really want loads of attention drawn to the clinic.” She added, “They are trying to make a political point at the expense of individual women, whereas if they want to do it outside Westminster I think that’s fine. They are clearly trying to affect individual women’s choices, and I think that’s really problematic.”

With some campaigners concerns more suitable for parliament and not the individual women themselves, questions are raised about how appropriate the campaign is. One 40 Days for Life campaigner said, “I need someone to explain to me how at 24 weeks minus one [day] it is not a homicide, a killing, but at 24 week plus one [day] it is now a human being. I don’t understand this deadline.”

One campaigner is adamant that women are not being fully informed. Although she has no medical or professional counselling qualifications, she engages women entering the clinic in discussions about abortion procedures. She said, “They do lie in there [the clinic], we try and counsel the women going in. They’re not told what happens. They birth that baby into a toilet on their own. That baby feels excruciating pain. That pill burns the baby.” She went on to describe partial abortion as “they get the baby halfway out the womb, and then they stick a knife into its skull and they suck the baby’s brains out.”

40 days for life also distribute an emotive magazine to women that says “Abortion is also used as a eugenic tool against the disabled.”[2] The magazine uses data published in 1970 to prey on health fears by claiming “keeping a first pregnancy rather than aborting reduces the risk of breast cancer.”[3]
On behalf of BPAS, Abigail said, “We follow a procedure of informed consent, and follow Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologist guidelines on guidance about what to tell women about the risks and complications. They want us to tell women their version of the risks rather than clinically based evidence about what the risks are.”

In light of the campaign, members of the public have been bringing cakes and sweets to the staff at BPAS, showing their support for the work they do. In response to the sweet support Abigail comments, “It’s a really nice gesture [that people are stopping by] because its really hard for our clients primarily, that is our concern. It’s [also] difficult for our staff, it is manageable and everyone’s fine, but it’s not nice to go outside and have people look at you and make the sign of the cross every time you go out the door, that’s not particularly pleasant.”

The 40 Days for Life campaign ended on 6 November 2011.

[1] Pregnant? Worried? We’ll help. Leaflet distributed by 40 Days for Life London.
[2]  Eugenics legacy. You can stop injustice. Advertising supplement page 9, Human Life Alliance, 2011. Distributed by 40 Days for Life London.
[3] But the experts say. You can stop injustice. Advertising supplement page 8, Human Life Alliance, 2011. Distributed by 40 Days for Life London.