Thursday, 06 February 2014

Protesting Choice

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The Helpers Of God’s Precious Infants have been blockading the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic for over a decade. Their methods are so confronting and painful to the patients, that a counter-group has formed to keep them in line where the authorities won’t.

Just outside of Melbourne’s CBD, alongside the iconic greens of the Melbourne Cricket Ground stands another famous landmark. Snuggling into other East Melbourne townhouses, the Fertility Control Clinic has been the face of the state’s abortion debate since opening, in 1972, as Australia’s first private abortion clinic.

Every weekday morning as people make their way to work, a small group gathers outside the clinic. As patients approach the building, anti-abortion protesters, trying to stop them from entering, swarm them. “Consider your baby” they exhort.

Sometimes the protesters stand and pray in a circle behind a painted line created to buffer patients from being harassed. Melbourne City Council rarely ever enforces the line and it doesn’t stop the protesters from crossing whenever they see a potential patient walking up Wellington Parade.

A protester blocks a woman with her family, a small child in a stroller.

“There’s another way”, the protester says, holding out a pamphlet.

“I have cancer”, the mother shouts, her husband trying to shield her as they make their way in.

The protester, Pam, shrugs, somehow confused and upset someone would consider her rude. She tuts, “I just offered a bit of assistance instead of going in there and having an abortion and she said it’s cancer, well, why would she be going in there, why wouldn’t she be going into a proper hospital, she’s going to abort and that’s what it’s all about….she got nasty.”

Malcolm*, another protester agrees. “We see this as a killing factory….nobody should be supporting an organisation like that, an organisation that kills innocent children.”

“It’s like saying – and I know people don’t like us using the comparison - but it’s like saying in the gas chambers in Nazi Germany they might be exterminating hundreds of Jews and others every day but they’re giving a nice bath to some people so I think we should support them.”

Motioning to the clinic over the walls, Malcolm says “this place has killed over a third of a million babies since 1973. I’ve been involved since the 70s in this cause and – they don’t deny it – and Bert Wainer who was the so-called abortion law reformer boasted that back in the early days he performed 50 abortions a day.”

When asked to back up his calculations, Malcolm says “I’ve had big signs saying ‘over 250,000 abortions performed here’ and they haven’t denied it.” To Malcolm, trained in economics, this makes it true.

As members of the international Helpers of God’s Precious Infants (HOGPI), both Pam and Malcolm are part of a campaign recriminalise abortion in Victoria. They hold “prayer vigils” around abortion clinics and outside Parliament on sitting days to raise awareness for their cause.

Though many would argue prayer vigils are a euphemism for harassment, Malcolm believes their tactics of approaching patients outside the clinic has drastically reduced the number of women getting abortions.

“We’ve been counting roughly the number of girls who go in there first thing in the morning. We know the numbers have declined since we started coming here 20 years ago…and probably nearly halved…it’s an average of 16 now.” It seems less an indication of HOGPI’s power than it does easy access to contraception and more clinics providing abortion procedures.

Torrey Orton, a psychologist who volunteers as a clinic defender, laughs at any thought the group is effective. “They have next to zero actual turnarounds. They will claim otherwise”, he says. “They don’t have any resources to even handle turnarounds, if they did they’d be out of business in a week.”

Malcolm disagrees. ”We’ve helped over 300 girls…from this clinic in the last 19 years who we’ve helped through their pregnancy. We’ve helped significantly 70 [women].”

When asked how they get the funds, Malcolm says “we help them with thousands of dollars…we have hundreds of supporters. Whenever we have a family or single mother who have serious financial problems….we have an appeal.”

According to Malcolm, their assistance can involve making large purchases on their behalf. We help them with cars”, he says. “Even now we’re helping a woman get a car because her current car is a bomb that doesn’t have air conditioning or power steering.”

The group’s presence is near universally reviled, yet expected by patients. Susie Allanson, clinical psychologist at the clinic, has witnessed the harassment in different forms – she’s had anti-abortion protesters stand in front of her car, or wail up hymns to her consulting rooms from the lane below. And then there are the early morning consults, generally the time when patients come in for abortions. Torrey recalls the work involved in getting the protesters to stop approaching potential patients trying to park their cars.

Some remember July 16, 2001 when Peter Knight (not formally aligned with HOGPI) went to the clinic and shot and killed security guard Stephen Rogers. Even more disturbing were Knight’s grander plans for death and violence. Police found various fuels, lighters, 30 gags and scrawled note saying “We regret to advise that as a result of a fatal accident involving some members of staff, we have been forced to cancel all appointments today”.

Susie Allanson says patients still turned up the very next morning to have abortions, thankful the clinic was still open.

For Lauren, a relatively recent patient of the Fertility Control Clinic, “I was bracing myself for being bum-rushed but they were fairly feeble actually”.

“They came right up to me at that point and stayed in quite close personal space as I made my way towards the entrance”, she says. “There was lots of muttered things, hearing bits about god and the baby’s right to life and a lot about my options as well. You know, the options not including abortion”

“I told them to fuck off….I definitely felt the heart racing and braced myself for a fight….I told them quite loudly and firmly to fuck off….And they didn’t let up in the personal space”

This is the sort of stress that most patients face when they come to the clinic.

For Torrey, this is one of many reasons to help as a clinic defender, volunteers who stand by the entrance with the security guard and provide a friendly and safe buffer from the protesters in an attempt to minimise stress for both patients and residents.

Torrey describes the time as “long periods of nothing happening with short bursts of infractions”. He says it took him a while to realise his job as a tall, imposingly genial man is to “just stand there and say hi”

He realises there is a lot of community support for the clinic and its defenders. Locals wave and greet him, telling him he’s a good guy. It’s one of many motivations to continue the work. “We have a lot of fun, we get a lot of positive stuff from the passing public. I convert one person a week just by saying hi and I just get a positive response.”

There’s a suggestion Torrey’s presence helps people feel better about the clinic’s presence, knowing there is someone there helping patients stressed from dealing with HOGPI.

This is just one example of HOGPI’s (perhaps wilful) ignorance on the impact of their actions. “They think they are not disturbing the patients who are coming along, because they think they are already stressed and that therefore they can’t be more stressed though stress is cumulative”, Torrey says. “But they’re ignorant and sometimes wilfully because they just don’t know.”

As a man committed to helping the protesters understand their behaviour, Torrey tried to share the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale with them, to help them see how their actions cause distress to others, potentially creating “cognitive revulsion”.

Ultimately, however, he knows the group doesn’t really care. If it comes from shaming, altruistically offering assistance, intimidating or restricting laws, an end to abortion appears to justify HOGPI’s means.

“There’s Malcolm, who stands over here (motions to protesters’ area) with a camera tucked in his sleeve…we talk to him”, Torrey says. “He’s vaguely sensible and he knows that in many respects what they’re doing is inappropriate, wrong and decidedly ineffective.”

Torrey’s unpaid shift begins at 7:30am until mid-morning, he take two of the six shifts each week. That’s when patients come in for surgical abortions. Other times, the anti-abortion protesters are either not there or keeping a quiet distance behind the line, praying to themselves.

The HOGPI shift also varies, with different people taking it in turn depending on home, work and protest commitments. The day I attend to watch, the adult members of HOGPI are busy protesting outside Victorian Parliament because it’s a sitting day. Outside the clinic at 7:30am, two schoolgirls stand against the clinic walls. One is in her school uniform and lets the rosary dangle at her hips. The other, in casual dress, holds a prayer book. Together they recite prayers.

There is no attempt to engage with patients. They are focused on their books. I can’t help but wonder if this is a usual occurrence before starting school and where either their parents or the grown up (generally over 50 years) protesters are.

The guard opens up shop for the day. The gate is opened. No one comes.

Torrey appears. He is a tall older gentleman. Self possessed, good humoured and matter of fact. The face of someone who has done this all so many times that he is no longer surprised. He scoffs at my high heels and, with the practiced eye of a veteran, explains the scene.

“As you can see these are the first players”, he nods to the schoolgirls. “You can tell by the fact that they’re standing there (where they are not supposed to) and they’re young”. He walks off to get coffee. He obviously doesn’t rate the schoolgirls’ ability to interrupt anyone.

When he comes back with his coffee, he watches as a staff member tells the schoolgirls they aren’t allowed to stand there and threatens to call the police. Pam, the adult protester who has just arrived, appears to whisper to them they are ok to stand along the wall. The staff member comes out a second time to let them know they’ve called the bylaw officers.

Eventually, the girls head to school as Torrey baits them about not understanding the law. The girl in uniform screams at him with the full, heady indignation of adolescent conviction, that she has done nothing wrong and knows her rights. Torrey has an indulgent chuckle as they stomp off.

After the girls leave, Pam is joined by Malcolm. Standing with them brings a very large feeling of shame. Local residents and workers walk by, smile to Torrey and scowl at the assembled protesters as they pass. They are not held in high regard by anyone other than their own brethren and yet, in the case of Malcolm, they have been coming to protest at the clinic for 20 years.

What prompts people to keep coming to an environment that doesn’t want them there? For Malcolm, “It’s the most important human rights issue since slavery and treatment of the black people and this is every bit as bad.”

I’m told one of the security guards refers to Pam as “the bulldog” but the day I meet her, I can only think of other protesters I’ve witnessed who were worse. One clinic defender spent hours trying to talk with her before giving up upon realising, according to Torrey that “there was nothing home in there except some verses that came from a bishop’s mouth”.

But Pam and Malcolm look like people you’d meet at a neighbour’s house. Older, perhaps a bit uneducated on news but ultimately trying hard to be friendly, helpful people. And still, they hold out pamphlets that were never asked for, brandish signs that upset patients for their graphic and inaccurate content and conflate abortion clinics with slavery and the holocaust.

It may be for show, but Pam does appear to be genuinely nervous – not wanting to say anything damaging to the group and, from what I can tell, not entirely happy with protesting outside the clinic. She admits to morning nerves, “I do pray, I ask God for help and to know what to say as well. I do want to be true witnesses here to help these people.”

Talking with Pam, you get the impression she is surprised anew every day that people don’t want her help and yet carries a slightly stiff scared air of being yelled at, yet she still comes to the clinic. She earns the nickname “the bulldog” and is apparently tenacious and defensive.

“They’re remarkably fearful for people who are sure they are right”, Torrey says.

There’s a remarkable dissonance at play with the pair, who are just two in a very large organisation.

Talk with them about cuts to single parents’ benefits and they are incensed with the injustice of it all and talk about the harmful effects of poverty on women and families. Malcolm expands on this to a discussion about charitable work in the developing world after International Women’s Day.

I ask him and Pam about the role reproductive health and choice plays in developing or majority nations and its status as a priority for the UN.

Pam immediately dismisses the notion. “I don’t think contraception really needs to come into it because it is against what we believe in but we also believe in the billings method…but I don’t think it’s been introduced in a lot of the third world countries.”

Malcolm quickly interjects to share their joint belief that contraception leads to abortion. He quotes an unnamed converted abortionist he saw on Eternal World Television Network, “They used to hand out contraceptive that were poor quality…many of the girls they gave contraceptives to came back for abortions…” He then went on to recount the tactics of this unnamed abortionist who would give fake pregnancy results in order to perform fake abortions.

Talking with them and watching their thought processes spasm is like watching a car stall at an intersection. They will make a series of thematically-connected statements that give an idea of their ideology but when it comes to abortion, the car stalls - this car will not move, its pistons will not fire, all because its driver has suddenly decided he can change gears using the power of his imaginary friend’s mind.

Pam spoke of her nursing days and finding a friend on the ground, doubled over in pain from a backyard abortion. She speaks of her love for the girls, supporting them, giving compassion, her anger over cuts to single parenting payments. Yet she can’t comprehend the vital importance of safe reproductive health and choice for women. For others, it is a small step in thinking but for Pam, it is a wide chasm. “I really love these girls with my heart and I feel for them all the time.” You don’t doubt the love she feels, you just doubt the inability to make all the connections.

Pam tells me later, “We like to offer assistance but that gentleman got verbally abusive to me just by showing him that (a pamphlet). We’re here to assist the girls.”

But how do visceral pictures meant to show aborted foetuses help women? “We do have pictures of aborted babies sometimes and just seeing that picture has caused a few girls to change their mind.”

Malcolm pauses to think it over, “but we don’t always have that picture showing but we probably should”.

At the heart of it is the psychology of fundamentalism. According to Torrey, “fundamental[ism] is a close to mad state, often devoted to single issue treatments of whatever they might happen to be. Very nice people one might know might be like that devoted to birds in the trees, or figures in the sky - these are all fundamentalist formations on single issues. So, it’s a broadly spread affliction in our culture, many cultures. "They are the fringe ends of many institutions (like religion).”

For Pam and Malcolm, it is their single most important issue. Malcolm says that “this is the most important issue for me because it’s a human rights issue….if you’re not alive, all other rights are meaningless.”

*Malcolm’s name changed at his request

This article is from the King’s Tribune Summer 2014 magazine, which includes an exclusive extract from Tim Dunlop’s book The New Front Page and articles from Brocklesnitch, Amy Gray, Jo Thornely, Stephen Herrick, Mat Larkin, Upulie Divisekera and many others. The full list of articles and contributors is here

You can buy the limited edition paper copy here Subscribers will received a $5 discount (select Summer Issue 2014 from the drop down membership list, available only until sold out) or the Kindle version here.

Amy Gray

Amy Gray is a writer and broadcaster from Melbourne, Australia.

Follow her on Twitter @_AmyGray_