'I Get Called A "Child Killer" And A "Satanist"' - What It's Like To Be An Abortion Chaperone In Northern Ireland
The Debrief: Try and enter the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast and protestors will physically block your path, shout abuse or play the sound of babies crying over loudspeakers. For volunteer escort Emma Campbell, this is just another day at the office...
City centres in the UK look much alike. The mass of school kids descending on double cheeseburger homesteads, bearded Ed Sheeran-crooning buskers and dozens of old lady trollies to trip over on the way to Debenhams. Belfast is pretty much the same, only here you could be side-stepping a pro-life campaigner with a six foot poster of a graphic, post-operative foetus.
Emma Campbell is a volunteer escort who physically chaperones women seeking abortion access in and out of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, to avoid protestors and their gruesome anti-abortion banners. To protestors she’s also known as ‘child killer’ and ‘Satanist’. As a PHD student at the University of Ulster, she also volunteers 9.30-5 on Thursdays and Fridays escorting about 4 clients a day; literally walking them through the clinic doors. Volunteers stay in the clinic, which now has a permanent police presence, until they’re requested.
Volunteer escorts acts as a physical and emotional barrier to the barrage of abuse tidal waving from protestors. 'Sometimes women won’t request to be escorted in, but once they’ve been through the crowd outside, they almost always ask to be led out. I escort them right up to their cars or the station. It’s that threatening,' says Emma.
The women work in pairs with body cameras for safety. Protestors surround anyone entering the clinic, and according to Emma, spout hateful things. ‘Marie Stopes don’t care about you’, ‘abortions give you breast cancer’, and ‘that baby inside you wants to live’. They tell women they have named babies, Theresa and Bernadette being popular choices. 'We ask them to leave us alone and try not to engage, but they’re relentless,' says Emma. 'They physically block us sometimes. They play babies crying from loudspeakers, film us and the clients, and shout very loudly to publicly shame women.'
Belfast’s Marie Stopes clinic first opened in 2012. By offering medical abortions up to nine weeks into a pregnancy (the country’s legal limit), the clinic provides an accessible lifeline. However, from first opening, the centre has been met with fierce opposition. Another obstacle for any woman, disregarding the alienating expense incurred in travelling hundreds of miles to then pay for an abortion, is the mob of anti-abortion ‘counsellors’ outside the clinic.
An abortion In Northern Ireland is only allowed in exceptional circumstances, but this doesn’t include rape or incest. For any woman who undergoes an illegal abortion (i.e. in almost any case), as well as anyone who helps her, the maximum punishment is life imprisonment. The Abortion Act 1967 does not extend there. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, the ‘draconian’ laws are a serious infringement on human rights. Health Minister Jim Wells - a.k.a the man holding office over millions of women’s ovaries- believes the 'ultimate victim' is the unborn child in cases of rape.
Precious Life, a local anti-abortion group, is at the forefront of hostility towards reproductive choice. Founder Bernie Smyth was convicted of harassing clinic director Dawn Purvis, for which she received a restraining order and 100 hours community service. She’s the figurehead of a troupe of would-be advisors who shout at visitors, hold vigils for aborted foetuses and who compare pro-choice NI assembly members to Hitler on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
When Marie Stopes opened, Emma and other members of Alliance for Choice reached out to help. 'We thought about a counter protest but we didn’t think it would be suitable to create a battle zone on the streets,' says Emma. 'A few of us visited an international conference on abortion in Canada and we spoke to people there who were clinic escorts in places like Texas. We found enough volunteers to do training. The youngest is in her twenties and the oldest is in her sixties.'
With pro-choice support, Amnesty International’s damning report on NI laws and the case for a judicial review by the Human Right’s Commission, it seems Northern Ireland is on the cusp of change for women’s bodily autonomy. Attitudes have, however, been moulded by cultural and religious differences for decades. Emma says: 'Precious Life is a very specific group. Most members are recruited from a Catholic congregation. There are also evangelical protestors too. These people have dearly held beliefs, but it’s not anyone’s right to project them onto anyone else.'
And these attitudes are stubborn. My mother comes from a small town in Eastern Ireland and says that her schooldays were inundated with girls ‘going to visit cousins in England’ for months at a time or disappearing altogether to homes run by nuns. There were horror stories detailing candle wax and coat hangers. Everyone knew what went on; people whispered on the school bus or exchanged looks over empty seats at mass, but abortion was never an open topic. A dirty secret. In reality, 59,614 women since 1970 have had no other choice but to travel to England to seek abortion care, according to British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
For me, my school in Northern Ireland felt like a breeding ground for anti-abortion ideals. You’re predisposed to be pro-life; in primary school we prayed for dead babies. In secondary, we clambered over each other to get a coveted place on the pro-life club trip to a ‘sanctity of life’ conference. We had ‘education for love’ instead of sex ed, where instead of putting a condom on a banana and learning about the symptoms of chlamydia, we talked about abstinence and how the foetal heart starts beating at 21 days. At Queen’s University Belfast, Emma says the DUP society kicked up fuss about the use of the word ‘vagina’ on the pro-choice society’s fresher’s fair stall. This says a lot in itself.
These attitudes can be as equally dangerous as they are deluded. Since Bernie Smyth’s prosecution the police presence has increased, but it doesn’t deter avoidable and horrific instances of harassment.
'We have scary incidents,' says Emma. 'We had one client run out onto the road to get away. Family members who haven’t had training can get quite understandably upset and end up in altercations with the protestors. It’s very provocative. We have to report every time we are harassed. There will be two volunteers on, four shifts a day, two days a week. We end up spending a lot of time in the police station.'
As part of her Masters project, with Abortion Support Network’s help, she photographed the steps in the journey of a Northern Irish woman travelling to England for an abortion. She travelled to Birmingham, Liverpool and London to produce a book, which also featured quotes from Health Minister Jim Wells’ speech against extending the Abortion Act in 2000, littered with anti-women rhetoric. 'I travelled to places like Germany and Sweden with exhibitions, where they were celebrating 40 years of abortion access,' she says.
Everyone in NI knows someone who has had an abortion whether they know it or not- 1 in 3 women have an abortion in their lifetime. By not doing anything about it, the government is exiling women who want to have a reproductive choice. It’s important for Emma and AfC, alongside other organisations such as Belfast Feminist Network and Women’s Resource and Development Agency, to continue the conversation for women’s right to choose.
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