I was a teenage anti-abortionist

The anti-choice movement has a history of dubious recruitment tactics to target young supporters - and they’re still at it today

11th July 2019

Ashley Judd has had one. Jameela Jamil has had one. Clemmie Hooper, midwife and mum of four @mother_of_daughters, has had one too. It feels like Insta-famous women everywhere are taking to social media to talk about their abortions.

Why? Well, after 25 white men voted to pass legislation amounting to a near-total ban on legal terminations in Alabama in May, actor Busy Philipps made a call for women to “end the shame” and share their stories using the hashtag #youknowme. 

There has been some progress; most critically, the UK Parliament voted overwhelmingly to extend abortion rights and gay marriage rights to Northern Ireland earlier this week. It felt like a watershed moment – even if, as Hadley Freeman noted, we need to acknowledge “the shame” of how long it’s taken to get to this point. 

But I have my own shameful confession to make: when I was 15, I was pro-life. That is, as pro-life as a 15-year-old girl with a poor weekend wardrobe, terrible eyebrows and precisely zero chance of falling pregnant can be.

Confessions of a teenager pro-lifer

Pro-life was the perfect “alternative” stance for me — a bit political! cute babies! no chance of pissing off my mum! — and so I wore a SPUC baby feet pin on my school blazer and wrote frenzied persuasive essays about the rights of the foetus.

I know, I know. At the time it felt so real and urgent, though: wanton liberals were waging war on the defenceless unborn.

How did I become such an ardent supporter of the pro-life cause? Well, the anti-abortion propaganda students were subjected to in Catholic comprehensives in the UK during the Nineties was of the less subtle variety.

Though unscientific and deliberately misleading, The Silent Scream has been shown to thousands, if not millions, of schoolchildren

At 14 or 15, we watched a grainy video entitled The Silent Scream created from ultrasound images of an abortion at 12 weeks. It was sped up in places to give the impression of the foetus “thrashing about in alarm” and its gruesome voiceover — as a suction cannula enters the uterus, the narrator Bernard N Nathanson describes how it will “dismember, crush and destroy the child” — left a visceral mark. 

Widely discredited by medical professionals, the film has its own Wikipedia page — a faithful record of its lurid pulp horror-style cover and weighty claims of “truth” and victimhood. Watching it through my fingers, I had what felt like a Damascene experience: abortion was evil.

With the benefit of hindsight, however — all hail the power of a more balanced university experience, a career teaching teenagers from a wide range of social backgrounds and the example of a progressive, vocally inclusive priest — it looks more like dogmatic devotion inspired by terror.

Having proven my zealot credentials at 15, school invited me to attend weekly prayer meetings exploring edgy teenage topics such as “Sex for Young Catholics” and then to a weekend faith festival at a Pontins-style holiday camp in Devon.

At one of the more charismatic (read: happy clappy) fringe events, a preacher “sensed” various vague ailments amongst the crowd — a dodgy leg, a bad back and so on — and asked people who identified with the complaints to come forward so that he could pray over them. 

His pièce de résistance was intuiting that a woman in the audience had undergone an abortion, asking her to come to the front of the room and identify herself — in front of hundreds of people, natch — “for healing”. It was a chaotic scene, with people praying loudly, speaking in tongues and the occasional fainting fit. I remember a line of people snaking around the front of the gymnasium and trying to work out who, if anyone, had stepped forward.

I’m more than a little uncomfortable about it all; looking back as a grown woman, it felt like a kind of radicalisation. 

That was then, this is… now?

So how much has changed in the teaching of abortion in schools in the last 15 years or so?

Well, I contacted several heads of RE and RE teachers, offering anonymity in exchange for frankness of views. No one was willing to talk. Hmm, I thought. Let’s keep an open mind.  

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, or SPUC, is “the oldest and largest pro-life group in the UK”, and delivers anti-abortion presentations across the UK. It wasn’t, I hasten to add, responsible for the showing of The Silent Scream in my Catholic secondary school — that was the questionable choice of the head of RE, I suppose — but rather visits schools as an external speaker to deliver “pro-life facts” to young people. 

In June 2019, only 5% of British adults felt abortion should be completely banned

Statistics for England are “unavailable”, but in Scotland SPUC delivers talks in around 50 schools per year, often to meet a curriculum need. “Schools are always consulted over the content of the talks to ensure that it is appropriate,” says SPUC spokesperson Tom Hamilton. “Teachers welcome our participation in ensuring both sides of an ethical issue can be examined.

“We don’t inhibit [students] from expressing views in favour of abortion and allow them to consider the pro-life perspective, challenging it as they wish. Our experience is that students have always been very articulate both for and against abortion.” 

So far, so refreshingly open-minded. Perhaps times have changed in synchronicity with the movement of public opinion — in June 2019 only 5% of British adults felt abortion should be completely banned according to a YouGov poll.

SPUC was heavily criticised in a 2008 Guardian article for using ‘brutal and bloody’ images in its ‘standard’ abortion talk

I wasn’t able to see any of SPUC’s presentation materials — “We prefer to retain control over our resources for copyright reasons.” I did, I must admit, expect more transparency from an organisation which was heavily criticised in a 2008 Guardian article for using “brutal and bloody” images in its “standard” abortion talk, one image depicting “a foetus being pulled by its legs out of a woman’s cut-open stomach”; a procedure titled a “hysterotomy abortion — one that is so rarely employed (and only ever used when no other method is safe for the woman) that statistics are not collected on it in the UK,” the article reads.

However, a catalogue of educational leaflets are available from its website, many of which make for interesting reading. Its Abortion Pack includes a quotation from Dr Thomas Stuttaford which claims an “unusually high proportion” of women who had undergone an abortion later developed breast cancer. “Such women are up to four times more likely to develop breast cancer,” he says. 

The language used in many of the materials is frequently alarmist, misleading about the pro-choice movement and even cruel

Its pamphlet on Abortion and Women’s Health, dated April 2017 and authored by devout Catholic Dr Greg Pike, persists with the view that the relationship between abortion and elevated risk of breast cancer is “a controversial question”, even though organisations such as the World Health Organization, the National Cancer Institute, the NHS and the British Medical Journal refute such claims on the basis of large, reputable studies. 

SPUC’s materials also make much of the connection between abortion and mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. They refer to “post-abortion trauma” — a condition which the pro-life movement claims come under the PTSD umbrella but which many medics dismiss out of hand as an anti-abortion lobby construct.

SPUC’s Contraceptives – What You Need To Know leaflet was highlighted in a Brook report which examined the teaching of abortion in schools. The leaflet, still available on the SPUC website, claims that all forms of hormonal pill contraceptives are potentially abortifacients as they interfere with implantation: an argument not based in medical or legal fact. 

pro-life
Labelling themselves “pro-life”, anti-abortion campaigners often fail to consider the lives destroyed by not having access to abortion

The language used in many of the materials is frequently alarmist, misleading about the pro-choice movement and even cruel. “Many people argue in favour of aborting disabled babies on the basis that they are ‘better off dead’”, the Abortion Pack claims. Complex overpopulation and sustainability issues are boiled down to “If farmers used the best available agricultural methods, enough food could be produced to provide 35.1 billion people with a US-style diet”.

In response to my request for information about the challenges SPUC faces in a world of changing values, Hamilton responds with a Biblical turn of phrase about his hope that “the high-tide mark of the culture of death” will be reversed by young pro-lifers — just as I was, 15 years ago, watching The Silent Scream with a sense of increasing horror.

Women in Northern Ireland have finally been awarded right to a safe, legal abortion at home: this is cause for celebration. But we should be cautious and consider what course of action the anti-choice lobby might take next. “Abortion is not a human right,” said SPUC’s Liam Gibson on Newsnight this week. “The right to life is a human right.” Somehow I doubt they’ll roll over without a fight. 

11th July 2019