Armed with walkie-talkies and body cameras, they guide women through a gauntlet of demonstrators who are hurling abuse and waving plastic foetuses outside the only clinic in the UK under permanent siege from anti-abortionists.
The female volunteer escorts record every comment and insult hurled at the Belfast clinic’s clients. Women are told they have just killed their child, foetus dolls are thrust in their faces and their aborted embryos are “christened” with names on the street.
The Marie Stopes sexual health clinic is calling for more volunteers to help protect the women who come from all over Ireland to use its services.
Unlike the rest of the UK, most terminations for unwanted pregnancies are illegal in Northern Ireland’s hospitals. But the Marie Stopes clinic carries out medical, not surgical, procedures up to nine weeks gestation, keeping it within the law. That has made it a target for anti-abortion activists.
Emma Campbell was shocked by the intensity of the “pro-life” demonstrations outside Marie Stopes when it first opened in Belfast in 2012. The 36-year-old photographer signed up last autumn to become a volunteer escort.
“Sometimes it feels like you are in one of those American states on the frontline of the abortion wars such as Texas. I have had to walk the women out through the protests all the way to the railway and bus stations across the road and sometimes into the city centre,” she said.
The anti-abortion activists tell women leaving the clinic “things like: ‘You are now the mother of a dead baby!’ or: ‘We have named your dead baby Theresa.’ I have had plastic foetus dolls pushed right in front of my face as well as those disturbing blood soaked images of what they claim are abortions on giant posters. They have even brought down loudspeakers outside on the street and played recordings of a baby crying. Just before Christmas they brought a manger, but without the baby Jesus in it to symbolise dead babies.”
The clinic is open for appointments only on Thursdays and Fridays, when Campbell escorts three to four women. “Most of our work involves taking the women, their family members, loved ones and friends out of the clinic after they have been inside. The overwhelming majority choose to get escorted out because they are so shocked at what they hear and see on the way in.”
Since starting her volunteer activities, Campbell has removed herself from social media because of the level of vitriol directed towards her.
“They say things like: ‘May God forgive you,’ or predict you are going to hell. I can live with it but it is the women and their families we escort out who I feel for. There is zero compassion towards them.”
There is now a near-permanent police presence in the foyer of the building that houses the Marie Stopes clinic. The Police Service of Northern Ireland deployed officers only after a landmark court ruling in November found that one of Ireland’s most prominent anti-abortion figures, Precious Life founder Bernadette Smyth, was guilty of harassing the clinic’s Belfast director, Dawn Purvis, and banned from demonstrating outside the clinic. Smyth has lodged an appeal, set for May 11, against the judgment.
Clare Bailey, another escort, said she and her volunteer partner “record every incident”. Recently the demonstrators had also taken to carrying cameras to record both clients and escorts.
She said: “We make sure everything is recorded which can be handed over to the police. We try to keep talking to the women, to reassure them, to keep their minds off what is being said to them by the protesters. They follow the clients right into railway stations and Belfast city centre. Our job is to keep the women safe and ensure they get away from the protests as quickly as possible.
“The other thing to note is that some of the women we escort may not even be in the clinic for medical terminations. They could be in simply for advice about family planning methods or sexually transmitted infections. Of course we never ever ask why they were in the clinic. It is not our business, we are just there to protect them as best as we can.”
Although barred from the area outside the clinic, Smyth vowed the protests will continue until the clinic is forced to close.
She said the escorts were “only there as a ruse to prevent women speaking to our people, who include trained counsellors, who can give these women advice and alternatives to abortion”.
She denied that anti-abortion demonstrators engage in verbal abuse and said the escorts “are shouting at our people, they are bullying our protesters and they are rushing women out before they hear the full story”. Marie Stopes volunteers reject the accusations.
Marie Stopes said the presence of volunteers had altered the behaviour of the protesters. “The safety and care of women using our services is paramount, so in Belfast where our clinic is subject to daily harassment from protesters we have recruited and trained volunteer escorts to help every woman who requests help, both to and from the centre. It is the only UK clinic where we have used them. As a result of their commitment and dedication to their role, we have witnessed a marked change in the behaviour of the protesters for the better.” – By Henry McDonald
Image – Police walk around abortion protestors holding up placards outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on October 18, 2012. (AFP)