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What Happened When I Went Undercover at an Anti-Abortion Conference

Mar 24 2016 1:00 PM
What Happened When I Went Undercover at an Anti-Abortion Conference

Illustration by Grace Wilson

I've been on pro-choice marches and protests, but I wanted to see the abortion debate up close from the other side. At least, that's how I ended up at a training day in London for anti-abortion activists.

In the basement of a Catholic church in the middle of Soho, London's historic red light district, a hundred or so people are meeting to train themselves on ending abortion. The day long conference has been organized by 40 Days For Life, an international anti-abortion group most famous for its praying and fasting 'vigils' outside abortion clinics.

While getting ready, I was worried about what to wear and how to act, and pretty worried that one of the activists would recognize me from attending counter-protests. What I'm totally unprepared for is the sickening feeling of spending a day listening to people—mainly men—who are determined to end legal access to a crucially important medical procedure.

In every other way, an anti-abortion conference is just like any other conference; the room is unbearably hot, speakers make cringeworthy jokes about Americans having loud voices, and people clamor round the big names during breaks. The small talk made in these breaks, though, was decidedly more theological.

40 Days For Life co-founder Shawn Carney, the day's keynote speaker, offers attendees advice on building our campaigns. "Abortion is a global crisis, but it has a local solution." If we focus on the abortions happening in our community, he advises, we will see truly see god's work. God's work is, of course, shutting down abortion clinics.

Worried about what he calls the "genocide of all genocides," Carney helped set up Forty Days for Life in College Station, a city in his native Texas. He and his wife started with a one-hour prayer session outside their local Planned Parenthood in 2004. When that clinic shut down, they expanded their campaign across the US, and more recently, internationally.

He claims that 40 Days For Life have since turned around 11,165 women seeking terminations and caused 127 abortion providers to leave their jobs. This includes Abby Johnson, the former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic who now acts as a poster girl for the pro-life movement. On their website, the organization claims to have closed 64 abortion clinics since 2004.

Read More: When Does Anti-Abortion Violence Become Terrorism?

Carney's keynote speech gets weird pretty quickly. He blames abortion on the destruction of Western culture and the loss of a universal and rational truth.The rest of the day unfolds in weird and profoundly disturbing measure.

Each speaker is introduced with the number of children they have, which is met with rapturous applause from the audience at their fecundity. During one break, a woman tells me in conspiratorial tones how Satanists are working in abortion clinics. Later on in the day, I am given a leaflet about a special 'Rosary of the Unborn': a rosary with a tiny alien-like fetus in some of the beads.

In every other way, an anti-abortion conference is just like any other conference. Photo by Melanie Kintz via Stocksy

Dr Joseph Meaney, a man with a face like a boiled ham (and another Texan to boot), offers the audience some historical perspective on what he terms "the culture of life," the chosen term for anti-abortion activists to talk about ending access to safe and legal abortion.

Meaney reminds the eager audience that focusing on abortion makes sense—he claims that it's the biggest cause of death in the world, taking two billion "lives" in the past 50 years. Who's to blame? That would be the "pro-abortionists" who, Meaney reminds us, are not "calm, dispassionate people... but [are] rabidly pushing abortion."

According to him, early Christians were famous for rescuing children who have been left to die by nasty pagans. Judeo-Christian culture, he declares, has always been opposed to abortion. Of course, even a cursory glance at a history book would tell you that abortion wasn't always a big deal for the organized church. There's no explicit mention of abortion in either testament, and throughout the history of Christianity differing views on when life begins have been held. Even Catholic Canon Law made a distinction between early and late term abortions until 1917.

Meaney asks us which country was the first to legalize abortion; when nobody gets the answer, he declares with glee that it was the Soviet Union. Lenin, he tells us, wanted to destroy the family. Failing to mention that Stalin would criminalize abortion 16 years later, Meaney ploughs straight ahead. The next country, he proclaims, was, of course, Nazi Germany—neglecting to add that this was part of a eugenics programme targeted at whoever the Nazis saw as genetically inferior. Meaney's big conclusion: "[The] two most despicable ideologies of the 20th century are the origin of legal abortion."

Anti-abortion protesters at a prayer vigil outside a clinic in Ealing, London. Photo by Steph Wilson

Now we're into the break and a queue forms for teas and coffees. I stay seated, gaze lowered, and hope my note taking has been read as diligent rather than suspicious. One man asks me about good places to start finding out about the pro-life movement, as he's brought a woman with him and she's just starting to get involved. I'm convinced my cover has been blown and it's a test. I mumble something about Planned Parenthood selling babies, hoping my disgust is read as incomprehensible sadness about the "babies being killed." Luckily, I still pass as a demure and earnest wannabe anti-choice activist. We settle down for more talks.

"I'm gonna tell you how to not be arrested." Neil Addison of the Thomas More Legal Centre might not have the Texan glamor of our early speakers, but he's winning over the crowd. Addison tells us how he's offered support to pro-life activists, including the burgeoning UK student pro-life movement. He runs through the legal rights of anti-choice activists, taking a bizarre diversion through the legacy of Magna Carta and his hatred for the Human Rights Act.

Advising against the use of graphic images—a tactic of more confrontational groups like Abort67—Addison suggests presenting a calm, respectable and reasonable front, and distancing yourself from any members of your group who seem more extreme.

The world of pro-life campaigners is one where the devil works behind every corner, and prayers somehow shut down medical facilities.

Updates from the latest Forty Days for Life campaign in Croatia follow: They've run 58 vigils in the past two and a half years and claim to have saved 27 lives. I talk briefly to a woman who runs prayer vigils outside abortion clinics in London, as part of the Good Counsel Network. These guys seem to be out there every day, and judging from the impressed sounds of the woman next to me, I get the feeling that they are considered slightly more hardcore than some other prayer-based activists. They also run their own pregnancy advice centres, where, as the conference hears later from their director, pregnant women are encouraged to pray with their staff, and they have graphic images of abortion procedures on hand if "needed."

Our last speaker is a rising star of the young pro-life movement, Rhoslyn Thomas, who has run 40 Days For Life vigils in Cardiff. Much younger than the other speakers, she's a well-practiced public speaker, who reminds us that abortion is always wrong, even in cases of incest, or, like the Savita Halappanavar case in Ireland, when an abortion is needed to save the life of the pregnant person. Thomas launches into an impassioned tirade against those who are against abortion but don't bother turning up to vigils and actions.

When she finishes, the man sitting to my left tells me that keeping up the momentum at vigils is difficult. I try to look concerned, hoping that this is because of counter-protests. Sadly, the reason turns out to be much more banal—it's not the reaction they get but the physical difficulties of taking prayer and fast shifts, as well as getting enough volunteers to turn up.

Thomas is the last speaker before a plenary discussion with all the day's esteemed guests. Although there was still time left, I'd seen enough.

The world of pro-life campaigners is one where the devil works behind every corner, and prayers somehow shut down medical facilities. They pay little attention to the pregnant people they are nominally trying to help; to them, each person they turn away from a reproductive health centre is a "baby saved."

I'm glad I didn't get rumbled. The Hail Mary that started the conference off and the grace before lunch were tense; my only experience of saying grace was from watching American sitcoms. There was even a terrifying moment when they showed footage from their annual March for Life—which I had attended as an angry counter-protester. Most of all, though, I was glad to get out of that crypt and back onto the pleasantly decadent Soho streets.

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