Modern society cannot tell me what a ‘good’ Christian should be doing
09/12/2014: writes Caroline Farrow, a columnist for The Catholic Universe and speaker for Catholic Voices
Bernadette Smyth, head of Northern Ireland’s pro-life group Precious Life, has been found guilty of harassment against Dawn Purvis, the former politician and now director of Marie Stopes, Belfast.
For those who are unfamiliar with Precious Life, they protest outside Marie Stopes’ abortion facility in Belfast, pray, hand out leaflets and talk to passers-by.
Never having been to Belfast to witness any of their vigils, it’s impossible to pass comment on their activities, but what seems apparent is that while this case ought to have revolved around the facts of the supposed harassment, it has instead brought the wider issue of abortion-clinic protests or prayer vigils into the fray.
In his ruling Judge Chris Holmes told Mrs Smyth: “I do not feel it’s appropriate for anyone to be stopped outside this clinic in any form, shape or fashion and questioned either to their identity, why they are going in there and being forced to involve themselves in conversation at times when they are almost certainly going to be stressed and very possibly distressed”. Mrs Smyth now faces a possible jail or community service sentence, along with a demand for compensation.
I’m not party to all of the information, but it seems to me that what we have here is a personal spat between two passionate individuals which has become unnecessarily unpleasant and politicised. Bernadette Smyth has been indicted for her conduct towards Dawn Purvis and no other individual, but both the judge and Mrs Purvis have made general comments about whether or not women entering abortion clinics, or the staff working in them, ought to be subject to intimidation.
Pro-choice advocates on both sides of the Irish Sea have sought to make hay as a result of Mrs Smyth’s conviction, calling for clinic vigils to be outlawed, and yet the fact that, abortion in Northern Ireland technically remains illegal has been conveniently overlooked. It is not Precious Life who are involved in criminal activity but Marie Stopes.
For what it is worth, Bernadette Smyth is a highly respected pro-life campaigner, a devoted Christian, who has recently been awarded the prestigious Michael Bell Memorial Award from the International Alliance of Catholic Knights, and whose leadership of Precious Life has won praise from senior police and never lead to public disorder. She intends to appeal the judgement and her solicitor notes that she has never used any bad language towards Dawn Purvis, never initiated contact with her and on both occasions which were deemed harassment, it was Purvis who approached Mrs Smyth and invaded her own personal space.
The case highlights the difficulties inherent in conducting pro-life vigils outside clinics. Some pro-lifers question the wisdom of turning abortion facilities into flashpoints of conflict which can then give the rest of the movement a bad name. Pro-lifers do need to be wary of not conforming to stereotypes, but at the same time, provided they remain calm, non-intrusive and non-confrontational, prayer vigils not only provide an excellent witness, but they are also very effective at saving lives.
I have witnessed and attended vigils run by the 40 days for Life campaign in the UK, where all that happens is that a group of people stand together a respectful distance away from the clinic entrance, and silently pray. The Good Counsel Network use exactly the same tactic. There is no intimidation, merely a sign is held up which says ‘We are here to help’, together with some non-graphic literature.
Women are not intimidated nor asked questions about their identity, but asked whether or not they would like some information in terms of where to get help if they are experiencing a crisis pregnancy.
The organisers of the Good Counsel Network can point to many examples where women who were being coerced into an abortion against their will, have approached them, asking for help, which has duly been provided. The Good Counsel Network will pay rent, provide accommodation, food, income, help with benefits, support, employment, baby clothes, childcare – in short, do all that they can to help people who are suffering as a result of an unplanned pregnancy.
Very often the women who are entering the clinics are doing so reluctantly, because they feel that they have no other choice and the presence of groups such as the Good Counsel Network provides the only opportunity to consider whether or not there might be a realistic alternative. It’s tell-ing that participants in vigils outside the Ealing clinic are women who have been helped by this organisation.
Reading the Daily Telegraph’s commentary by its women’s editor, Emma Barnett, regarding abortion clinic vigils, it was very hard not to be affronted by the assertion that the clinic vigils were not Christian, as Jesus Christ was full of compassion and never judged.
I found myself wanting to leap to the defence of both Bernadette Smyth and UK organisations and wanting to highlight the excellent and worthy work of these people, who courageously stand outside clinics in all winds and weathers wanting to extend the hand of friendship, compassion and help to all those in need, whatever their individual circumstances.
Their work is the very embodiment of Christian charity. Anyone with more than a passing knowledge of scripture will know that Christ did not shy away from condemning injustice and neither did he mince his words when it came to issuing condemnation. The fifth commandment is pretty clear, so it’s obvious where Jesus would stand when it comes to the subject of commercial abortion clinics.
Pro-life politics aside (and there are certain tactics which are counterproductive), my reaction to the notion that standing outside an abortion clinic and praying is ‘un-Christian’, made me realise how easy it is to fall into a secularist trap. I was inadvertently validating society’s current mindset in terms of wanting to demonstrate how pro-life Christians adhere to their definitions of goodness and being nice people.
But then when I thought about it some more, I realised that what was being required was for Christians not to bring their beliefs into the public square, with the act of quiet prayer being deemed as ‘harassment’. ‘Good’ Christians it was claimed, stay at home to pray and don’t feel the need to ‘impose their beliefs’ on anyone. ‘Good’ Christians are expected to do lots of good work for the benefit of society, give to charity and yet never express their faith in terms of informing their political or social conscience.
This is the very antithesis of the Gospel message. Of course we need to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves when it comes to evangelisation and not act in ways which obstruct others from coming to Jesus, but neither should we allow the wider world to dictate to us what constitutes Christian behaviour.
Standing outside a clinic praying and offering help to desperate women may not please the world at large, but then again, that is not what we are called to do.