Thursday, 11 October 2012

Talking to 40 Days for Life Oxford

40 Days For Life Oxford cheerfully dismiss the necessity of abortion care for women.
Tony Cash is on the right. The woman on the left is Eveline Finch from Bladon. Can you identify the other protesters?
Source: 40 Days for Life Oxford Facebook Group

Yesterday I spoke to the 40 Days for Life protesters in Oxford. They were quite a small bunch - two older men and two woman with three small kids and a baby.

In many ways, Oxford gets off lightly compared to other UK cities. Our BPAS clinic is part of the city's main hospital. The 40 Days crowd stand outside the main road entrance to the hospital, out of sight of the clinic. They also seemed quite well-behaved, not approaching anyone or handing out any anti-choice propaganda. They did have business cards for the LIFE counselling service, but I had to ask to see them; they weren't being shoved in people's faces.

In fact, what struck me about this group was how harmless they seemed. I spoke to Oxford 40DFL coordinator Anthony (Tony) Cash, who embodies the image of 'harmless old man'. As my previous attempts to communicate with anti-choicers have turned into unproductive public shouting matches, I decided not to challenge this group's position and politely asked what they were doing and what they hope to achieve.

Tony Cash lit up with delight when telling me that abortion clinics across the US are closing as a result of 40 Days for Life's actions. This is when I started to realize just how dangerous these seemingly innocuous people are - not because they are evil or because they hate women, but because they are hopelessly naive about the consequences of their actions.

What does Tony Cash think will happen to women when all the clinics have closed down? He probably imagines them going on to have healthy babies and living happily ever after. Some might. But real life isn't always that rosy. What will happen to the cancer patient whose pregnancy is life-threatening, or the woman whose dearly wanted fetus is diagnosed with a condition incompatible with life, when the clinics are gone? Will they be forced to travel abroad under heartbreaking circumstances, like these Northern Irish women? What do they think a scared 16-year-old is going to do when BPAS no longer exists? A rape victim? A mother of 3 children who can't cope with being pregnant again?

I regret not asking Tony these questions. I want to know if he's so fond of his views that he would be willing to let women die for them. But I'm not sure it would have helped. After all, he has God on his side, and won't God take care of these women? It might be small comfort to the vulnerable women who, without abortion, would be forced to risk their lives as pawns in this moral war, but Tony's belief in divine intervention presumably helps him to sleep at night.

The big advantage that 40 Days for Life have over the pro-choice movement is the simplicity of their message. "Killing an unborn child is wrong" is an easy concept to promote. It translates into some punchy slogans. It also conveniently glosses over the suffering caused by forced pregnancy and birth. In fact, it glosses over the woman altogether.

What happens to the woman carrying this embryo?

These people are not evil; they are naive. They are blinkered. They lack empathy. The woman I met yesterday - supporting her baby with one hand and an "I can live without abortion" sign in the other - presumably loves her children and cannot understand that becoming a mother might not be in another woman's best interests. The truth is that some women can't live without abortion. Unwanted pregnancy can and does ruin lives - not in every case, but in many. Pregnancy can (and frequently does) ruin a woman's health. To suggest otherwise shows willful ignorance of the facts of real people's lives.

If what they told me yesterday is true, this hardy bunch of Oxford 40DFL members provides financial help to women who want to keep their babies but can't afford to. And that's great. Really. It's also great that LIFE (despite my concern about their one-sided "counselling" service) have a safe house for women and children who are in danger of abuse or have nowhere else to go.

But let's not forget what 40 Days for Life aim to do. They want to take away British abortion facilities. They want the law, not the individual or her doctor, to decide how big a gamble to take on a risky pregnancy. In short, they want to play God with other people's lives.

We can't write 40DFL off as harmless. But we can learn from them. Their peaceful approach encourages empathy for the non-sentient fetus. The job of the pro-choice campaign is to encourage empathy for women, almost all of whom live with the possibility of unwanted pregnancy for much of their lives.

It's time to speak the truth: that contraception doesn't always work, that women do die when abortion is restricted, that women who have abortions are not some evil "other" but actually make up 1 in 3 people in the UK (your sister? your daughter? your mother?) It's time to make people understand the powerful effect - for good or for ill - that pregnancy has on a woman's body and emotions, to prevent people writing abortion off as a "convenience".

Don't assume that fighting for abortion rights is a job that can be left to other people, or think that unwanted pregnancy will never touch you or your family. Join Abortion Rights. Get involved in campaigning. Talk to your friends about why being pro-choice matters. Because if we don't, the fate of UK women will be left to ignorant old men like Tony Cash.

Next post: Oxford Feminist Network Tackles Anti-Choice Extremism

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