Guest post: Dawn Purvis - 'the pro-life protesters outside our centre have no idea of the harm they cause'
Yesterday, anti-abortion protester Bernadette Smyth was sentenced to 100 hours of community service for harassing Dawn Purvis, the Director of Marie Stopes Northern Ireland - here, Dawn says it's essential that women can access abortions without fear
Trigger warning: this post contains a graphic description of violence against women that some users may find upsetting
Director of Marie Stopes Northern Ireland
Posted on: Thu 18-Dec-14 11:48:23
(47 comments )
When does a peaceful, lawful protest cross the line and become harassment? When it is dressed up as freedom of speech, and appears armed with obscene photoshopped pictures, leaflets touting dubious medical research and CCTV cameras. When it intimidates, harasses and frightens the life out of women accessing a legal health service, and the staff who work to support them - that's when.
I have a lot of respect for people who say to me, ‘I don't agree with abortion. I have strong religious beliefs and I think it is wrong for any woman to do that’. Whilst I do not share their beliefs or their view, I respect their right to hold it. I respect them because they don't try to dress abortion up as illegal, or unsafe, or morally wrong, or hurtful to women, or even as a cause of breast cancer or mental health issues. I respect them because they point to their faith as the foundation for their view. But they should not expect everyone, including women accessing health services, to share that view.
I am pro-choice because every woman should be a decision maker. I respect their right as moral, autonomous individuals to do what is right for them - not because I agree with their decision necessarily, but because I recognise that women seek abortions for all sorts of reasons that are complex and varied. What I do in Northern Ireland is support women in their choices, whatever they may be, and I am constantly amazed by the courage and bravery of the women who use our services. Women who run the gauntlet of abuse and public shaming in the middle of a busy Belfast street to get the help and support they need. These are the women whose stories make me cry, but whose resilience makes me strong.
Women have to run the gauntlet of abuse and public shaming in the middle of a busy Belfast street to get the help and support they need. These are the women whose stories make me cry, but whose resilience makes me strong.
Take Gemma (not her real name) who came to our centre one afternoon. She had been stopped on the way in by the protesters at the door, who asked her if she was going to Marie Stopes. Gemma thought they were staff, and so said yes. They asked for her name and she told them. They started to call her Gemma, and told her they had some information on abortion for her and could help her. Gemma listened to the woman, wondering why she was talking to her on the street and not inside the centre. When Gemma realised the people were protesters and tried to enter go inside, they shouted at her – ‘Gemma, don't kill your baby!’ and ‘we will be waiting for you when you come out!’. She was distraught when she came through our door, and it took a while for her to stop shaking. I got her a cup of tea and sat with her.
Gemma wanted the morning after pill. She had been raped by her husband three days previously and today was the first that she could get out of the house. Although she was wearing heavy make up to hide the bruises, the swelling around her mouth, nose and eyes was apparent. She showed me the strangulation marks on her neck and the bite marks on her arms and breasts. She kept saying ‘I can't have a baby with this monster. He will kill me. He wants me pregnant because he wants to kill me.’ Gemma told me that when she refused to go to her doctor to have her contraceptive implant removed, her husband warned her that he would do it himself. He removed her implant with a Stanley knife while sitting on her chest. He told her to tape the wound with sellotape and stop her whining.
Gemma got her morning after pill. I gave her advice on where she could get help, phone numbers to call confidentially and places to go in an emergency. When she left she said: ‘those people outside don't know me. They don't know anything about me or my circumstances. They don't know why I am here. I don't know whether I am pregnant or not, but I can't take that chance because if I am, I have to kill this baby before he kills me.’
Like all the women I see, Gemma made the decision that was right for her, and we supported her. The people who protest outside our centre and other centres - using ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘right to protest’ as their guise - have no idea of the harm they cause. They do not hear the stories of the women who need abortions, and nor do they want to listen. The sentencing of Bernadette Smyth is a reminder that harassment is intolerable. All I ask is that those who disagree with a woman's right to choose at least respect their dignity, privacy and their right to access legal health services without fear or harassment.
By Dawn Purvis
I agree wholeheartedly with this. Thank you for posting.
Excellent guest post.
I agree with the last sentence most of all. I always get a bit nervous when this debate along 'you don't know her circumstances', as it makes the narrative vulnerable to being appropriated by discussions around some abortions etc being more 'justified' than others.
At the moment, abortion within clearly defined medical and legal parameters is legal is the UK. Also contraception, mAP etc. I thinly it's very important to keep the emphasis on women's rhights to access these health car services,without being harrassdd or intimidated.
Thank you for posting, and most of all, thank you for the invaluable support you give to women like Gemma. Every woman should be allowed to make her own choices, free of harassment.
Excellent post, thankyou. Whilst we cannot stop people being on a public street we hopefully can stop their bully tactics on the women going in to the building.
Many women have terminations because they are in abusive relationships but whatever the reason it's the choice of the individual and needs to be respected.
While out shopping a few years ago I was stopped by a group of anti abortion campaigners, mostly men. I had no direct involvement in abortion but as a woman I felt intimidated and still feel strongly that women who decide to have abortions should not be abused or stigmatised by any campaigner.
Excellent post. Many women choose abortion in desperate circumstances not because they feel like it.
Thank you for your hard work Dawn in fighting for women's bodily autonomy
Regardless of why a woman has chosen abortion (and "because they feel like it" is a perfectly valid reason) harassment is disgraceful
Meant to type, not just because they feel like it.
Thank you Dawn, not just for posting, but also for bringing a valuable service to NI. I agree with you that it is everyone's right to hold their own view on abortion but it is horrific to subject women who, in all likelihood, are making one of the most difficult decisions of their lives, to the kind of onslaught that these protesters have.
I used to work on University St and had to walk past protesters there with terribly upsetting images up, once going in to where they were protesting, on a work related issue, I was shouted at not to kill my baby. I wasn't even pregnant but if I had been, and was subjected to that abuse, it would have devastated me.
I am pro-choice. And pro-choice is not anti-life - it means the right to choose. And that choice may be to continue with the pregnancy, or not. What doesn't help are organisations or protesters dressing up their prejudices as fact or advice and forcing them on others.
Keep up the good work Dawn, giving impartial advice & help to women in NI. I hope one day we will match the UK in being able to help women completely in their own country, without having to have the humiliating & isolating 'trip to England' <euphemistically used here for an abortion> when they need support most.
Such a well argued and thoughtful post. I have always thought that I would not personally feel able to have an abortion but count myself very fortunate to have never been in a situation to have to make that decision. However I would absolutely defend any woman's right to do so.
Thank you Dawn for all you do. I am so pleased that Ms Smyth will be unable to harass you or any other woman again. I doubt she will have learned her lesson though.
People who want to lobby to stop safe abortions being accessible to women need to do so via Parliament/Stormont, there is no reason to be outside a women's health clinic other than to harass and intimidate vulnerable women.
I hope that NI comes to it's senses soon and adopts the same abortion laws as women are able to take advantage of in the rest of the UK.
Thank you Dawn.
I used to hate walking through Cornmarket when the Pro-Life supporters had a stall there wuth the pisters, they had up. How it was ever allowed is beyond me.
Well done Dawn. I used to work on another floor in the building the clinic is in, I probably would have been harassed every day going in to work, just for being young and female. NI desperately needs the service you are providing, and Bernadette Smyth should be ashamed of herself. She won't be though, unfortunately.
Agree wholeheartedly. Women must be free to go about their business without being intimidated, bullied or harassed.
Well done, Belfast needs you!! Rather than exporting all our problems to England and polishing our shiny little halos.
It just seems so totally inhumane to care so much about a ball of cells, which at that stage almost certainly isn't capable of having feelings, compared to a woman who is so totally aware of what she is doing and often has quite mixed feelings about it.
An abused woman who has an abortion shouldn't be harassed, but neither should a woman who wants to not have a baby so she can complete her degree, or one who already has children and can't cope with the effect another would have on her or her existing children. It's often not an easy choice to make, but it's often the right choice and saves a lot of pain for everyone involved.
I wish we lived in a perfect world where contraception was always used and always worked, but given this isn't always the case, women who need to have an abortion should be able to have one without being harassed.
Keep at it Dawn. I am in NI and whole heartedly support your work! Well done.
I am pro choice too and very much support you.
Great post, Dawn, and you are very brave to do what you do. As you say, they have a right to their opinions, but no right to intimidate and harass others. No-one would choose to have an abortion if there was any other option!
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