Photo: We Support Women, Facebook
Although an unplanned or complicated pregnancy is a serious issue for a woman, even serious enough for her to seek an abortion, terminating the life of her child is also a fraught decision, and one that she makes more or less reluctantly. That is why pro-life advocates can be found outside abortion clinics seeking to make contact with women entering such facilities to offer them information and support that may persuade them to keep their babies.
Clinic operators, and activists who support abortion see this “sidewalk counseling” as an attack on a woman’s privacy and the “right” to an abortion. In the United States, Britain and Australia, they are agitating for “buffer zones” that would stop pro-lifers doing any advocacy or approaching women in an extended area around clinics.
It is for this purpose that the Safety Access Zone bill is currently going through the New South Wales legislature. If passed, the bill would criminalize the movements of pro-life groups within 150 meters of abortion clinics, with penalties including potential jail time. Mainstream media typically support such moves and have little time for the pro-life advocates.
A classic example occurred last week on The Feed, a programme of Australia’s SBS (public broadcasting) channel. Two presenters interviewed Bethany Marsh, spokesperson for We Support Women and a volunteer sidewalk counsellor. To say that their attitude was patronising is putting it mildly. You can hear the scare quotes around the woman presenter’s opening question: “What exactly is a ‘sidewalk counselor’?” And her skepticism about her guest’s right to call herself a counselor if she didn't have the certificate that enables abortion clinic staff to do it oh-so professionally.
Beth defended her right to be available for women entering a clinic to talk about alternatives to abortion, “if they should desire.” As she said: “Often we find that women going to an abortion clinic are either being coerced, or they don’t get the full range of choices…we’re there as a final voice before they enter the clinic to offer them help if they should want it, be it financial, emotional, we are there for them, as women for women.”
Then came the accusation straight off the pro-choice talking points list (without any specific sources identified): “Many of the women accessing these clinics say that they are yelled at, and labelled baby murderers, and forced to look at graphic images. Do you think that’s effective counseling?” the male interviewer demanded.
Beth politely replied: “We don’t do that…I just stand there with a pamphlet in my hand, no kind of extraneous banners, no yelling, gosh no. We’re there for women, we’re not there to ridicule them or anything like that.”
According to pro-choice advocates like MP Penny Sharpe, sponsor of the “safety” zone bill, even this much makes Beth a vicious religious extremist.
But for real abortion extremism you can’t beat social media. “You should probably deactivate your socials before making a c[**]t of yourself on national television you soft brained f[**]kt[*]rd.” Beth was warned.
This level of abuse her interview precipitated led me to contact her and ask whether she received any positive feedback. “Overwhelmingly yes,” she said. “A few women contacted me thanking me for what I’m doing. A couple of women who were post-abortive contacted me looking for counseling, which I could give them a lead to.”
“Most of the backlash is from men,” She added. One man even threatened, “im really hoping this bill doesn’t pass or I may not get the chance to find you outside a fertility clinic one day…keep your eyes open snowflake.” She admitted that the threat unnerved her, and that “it felt very strange” being back at the abortion clinic a couple of days later.
But perhaps not all pro-life sidewalk counsellors behave respectfully towards women entering abortion clinics.
“Some pro-lifers act too emphatically,” Beth agrees. “Their execution lacks tact, genuine care and support.” She is frustrated that these people have become the stereotype, exploited to the nth degree by pro-choice advocates, even though “they constitute a minority, and their methods are not looked upon kindly by people such as myself in the pro-life community.”
Her own organisation focuses on offering information and support to women. She doubts that abortion clinic counselling includes a clear presentation of, for example, the protection from breast cancer that a first full-term pregnancy affords, or the negative effects of abortion on mental health.
As Beth pointed out to her interviewers, “these clinics operate on abortions. It is not in their best interest to advise against an abortion.”
What on earth could she mean by that? the woman countered, with all the disingenuity she could muster.
Beth, who respectfully tolerated her interviewers’ interrogation during her time on Feed, and articulated her position well, is a salutary reminder to the Safety Access Zone bill’s supporters that they cannot make a straw man, or woman, out of those who oppose it.
Presenting a measured and compassionate defence of her prolife stance, which she is able to substantiate with the most recent and reputable scientific evidence, Beth proved it is a position worthy of serious consideration and respect.
If even-handed debate over this proposed legislation is to be had, similar voices who oppose the bill will need to be given more attention in the next few days and weeks.
Veronika Winkels is the mother of two young children. She writes from Melbourne.