Brittany Mann and the Abortion Protestors

Brittany Mann and the Abortion Protestors

In my other life, I moonlight as a receptionist at a medical centre. Arriving at work one afternoon, I found the building surrounded by men holding enormous signs emblazoned with disingenuous slogans and graphic photos of aborted foetuses, not dissimilar to the subject of Maddy Phillipps’ Kipling-esque poem of yesterweek. My initial amusement turned to irritation as they yelled at me while I was inside on the phone. Patients were upset, the nurses were indignant, and the doctors were used to it. It made for a good work story, but also made me curious about the people who do this sort of thing.

Every Friday from 11am to 12pm outside Dunedin Public Hospital, one of these motley “pro-life” crews protests a woman’s right to choose what to do with her unborn baby. There is usually a counter-protest staged by enthusiastic “pro-choicers” at the same time. What interested me was not the ethics surrounding abortions, but rather the inter-protestor bilateral relations. As I explained to the Critic editor, “I mean, you’d think it would be really awkward.”

Brittany talks to an “Abortionist”

But first, let me lend a few words to the nuts and bolts of “terminations of pregnancy,” as they are clinically known. What exactly goes on behind closed doors on Friday mornings at the Public Hospital? I spoke to a physician who has been performing terminations for almost 24 years to get the low-down on abortions both medical (induced by abortifacient pharmaceuticals) and surgical (performed using vacuum aspiration).

“The law in New Zealand says you’ve got to be seen by two certifying consultants who have got to agree to it – the grounds are virtually always mental health. You’ve got to see a counsellor as well, which may happen on the same day or another day. For a medical termination, you have to be under 9 weeks. So you’ve been seen by your doctors, then you see the nurse and you’re given the Mifepristone, and you go away. Then you come back either the next day or the day after, and then you’re given the Misoprostol tablets, which are the drugs that soften up the cervix and start contractions happening. You can either stay in hospital or go home.”

“We keep you for an hour in the morning to make sure you don’t get a reaction to your pills – occasionally, people can get a lot of diarrhea and tummy cramps and feel terrible. Most people would start to get some contractions after an hour or two and then they have the codeine, they pass the sac and we follow up with them a couple of days later to make sure that their hormone levels are going down. I think sometimes people think that the medical termination is easier than it is.”

“For the surgical termination, you come in, having had a light breakfast, with a driver to drive you home. We give you Midazolam to relax you, and we also give anti-inflammatories and Misoprostol which is the same thing we use for starting off miscarriages, and that’s to soften up the cervix so that we don’t injure it when we’re dilating it. Then you go into theatre where you’re given some intravenous Fentanyl (which is morphine-like stuff) and you have your legs up in stirrups.”

“There’s a nurse sitting with you, and a nurse with me. We examine you, put a speculum in and inject either side of the cervix with local anesthetic. Then we measure the length of the uterus with a metal rod, which we use to open up the uterus enough to put the plastic catheter in, which is attached to the suction. And then we just suck out the contents. A lot of people feel hardly anything. The whole procedure takes about fifteen minutes”

“The most likely serious complication is bleeding. I’ve had one horrific bleeding, but she survived – she had an undiagnosed bleeding disorder, which was awful. Everybody’s had someone who’s hosed – it’s quite scary. The other one is perforation of the uterus – that’s a one-in-a-thousand likelihood. We know those are the risks and we manage them accordingly. I’ve never lost a patient.”

Brittany talks to a counter-protestor

I felt if that interview proved anything, it was that women don’t exactly go around having abortions for fun. I arranged to speak to Rachel*, a counter-protestor, to find out what the deal was with the Friday morning protest. “There are people that stand outside [the hospital] with quite horrible images – they’ve got things like dismembered foetuses and stuff. The idea is that we stand in front of them to create a physical barrier to prevent them from interacting with the public,” she explained. “They sort of stand there with their rosary beads, chanting, and it’s quite intimidating.”

What were interactions between the groups like? “It’s pretty tense,” said Rachel. “A lot of what they say will be quite insulting. They call me a ‘bad woman,’ ‘unwomanly’ and stuff. And they’ll do things like pray for us – I don’t really like that. Mainly, they’re just frustrating. They try to stay civil and friendly. We’ve possibly offended them more than they’ve offended us.”

When I asked Rachel what she thought about the protestors, she thought for a second. “There are moments,” she said, “when you see that they have really strong convictions and they’ve got a religious foundation for it that I don’t understand.” Quick to qualify her statement, Rachel added, “But they’re not actually ‘pro-life’ the way they say they are, and that stops me from having compassion for them. I still see them as fanatics, like, some of them have been there for ten years. They’re just never, ever going to change.”

Brittany meets Les the Loveable Lunatic

That Friday, I toddled down to observe the spectacle for myself. As I approached the hospital’s main entrance, I spied a lone figure wearing a grey sweater with the hood up beneath a brown polar fleece. He was holding a sign that said “Abortion kills children. Love your unborn neighbor”. I thought it safe to assume that this was My Guy, so I went over, smiled winningly, and introduced myself. The man looked at me suspiciously at first, but he agreed to let me hang with him for the morning. His name was Les*, and he’d been showing up to protest every Friday morning for “about three million years,” or ten, as he later clarified, proving Rachel right. It was only 10.30am. Les was early.

I asked him whether there was a particular organisation behind the protest, and Les identified “Voice for Life”. I asked him what Voice for Life does, apart from protesting abortions. “Not a lot,” said Les, unabashed. “It used to be called SPUC – Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. But it got mocked.”

Les gets verbal diarrhea

Having got Les talking, it quickly became apparent that I had released a veritable geyser of autowitter that I was powerless to suppress. One of those elderly people who are so starved for human interaction that they’ll talk anyone who will endure their ramblings to death, Les was an oratorical cannibal.

Topics Les covered in the inaugural 30 minutes of our acquaintance included the closures of schools, declining voter turnout, decreasing sperm counts, and Catholics’ all-time least-favorite thing: same-sex marriage. It was not long before my eyes had glazed over and I began contemplating my own mortality, let alone that of the unborn foetuses bobbing around somewhere in the vicinity. It was to be the longest 90 minutes of my life.

When Les eventually lapsed into silence, I seized the opportunity to ask him about the counter-protestors, who, I may as well mention now, never actually showed up. “They’re hard to ignore,” said Les. “I feel like socking them in the jaw half the time. Some of their signs, they’re obscene. And they call us insensitive.” Indeed, I had heard from Rachel that one of her more memorable placards bore the legend “If I wanted religion in my uterus, I’d fuck a priest,” so I kind of saw Les’ point. “We don’t like them,” he confirmed. “And they don’t like us.”

Shit’s racist

I was happy to humour Les on this matter, but then shit got racist and just plain off-topic. I may be chastised for taking the following quotes out of context, but, given that I said approximately five words during our entire “conversation”, I feel contextual responsibility lies with Les and Les alone. Regarding abortion in cases of rape: “Well, half of Africa wouldn’t be here!” On declining numbers in the clergy: “If you could just get priests not to fancy children…” And on prenatal testing for trisomy-21: “You used to see Down’s Syndrome children everywhere, now you never do. And who doesn’t love Down’s Syndrome children? Because they sure love you!”

Even though Les had told me he was on the unemployment benefit, I felt sure that with raw, silver-tongued talent like this, he could easily be writing campaigns for IHC. For now, he was clearly content with handing out anti-abortion paraphernalia. Les was generous beyond my wildest dreams, supplying me with a technicolour array of bookmarks and newsletters, including one with Pope Benedict XVI on the front. “You’ve got the wrong Pope on it,” I pointed out. Les gave me a withering look. “He’s the pope emeritus.”

Finally, other protestors show up

It had just gone 11am. Cigarette smoke was wafting gently on the breeze, emanating from nicotine-starved patients who were blissfully ignoring the green “Smokefree” signs on the wall behind us. I was beginning to wonder if I would be stuck with Les the Loveable Lunatic all morning, watching the world go by in a steady stream of snarls and sneers. “Where is everyone else, Les?” I inquired eventually. He explained that lots of people come after daily mass, and it could take a while to get a park. “But you got here early, eh Les?” I said. “Well,” he replied, “I’ve got the time.”

Finally, Elaine*, Tania*, and Bob* showed up, along with two older blokes I never caught the name of, all greeting each other with cheery familiarity. I soon found myself sandwiched between Les, who had apparently come with a selection of posters and was now clutching a flow chart depicting nine months of embryo development, and Bob, who was gripping a huge photo of what looked like a bloodied tadpole “at 11 weeks” in the palm of a hand. I asked Bob if he had made the sign himself. He had.

Meet the team

Tania, an elderly mother of seven, began protesting years ago when her son and his wife were having trouble conceiving. Bob, a benign-looking engineer who takes an early lunch break on Fridays to be able to attend the protest, started coming 18 months ago, having realised that in the same hospital in which his two children (and one on the way) were born, “other babies were being killed,” as he put it. “It’s such a serious matter,” he told me. “And it’s so hidden.”

I asked Elaine, already knowing the answer, if she had kids, too. She had three. Did they know she did this? I wanted to know. What did they think about it? “They’d love to come! But it can be quite hairy. We’ve had our photo in the paper, so it’s quite important that they know,” she explained. “In describing abortion to my children, they said we could go down (to the hospital) and bring the babies home,” Elaine continued. “But I explained that there are none.”

What don’t they want? Abortions!

Despite a conscious effort to keep my notebook in full view, I was increasingly concerned that passersby might mentally tar me with the same brush as these Hail Mary-chanting zealots, so I delicately extricated myself and stood off to the side near Johnny*, a third-year physiology student who had dropped by to play the friendly neighbourhood devil’s advocate. He was engaged in a lively debate with Bob. “But what is it you want?” Johnny was asking. “For abortion to be made illegal?”

“I would like for more than abortion to be made illegal,” Bob replied in an Irish lilt. “I would like for abortion to be unthinkable.”

It seemed to me that this was rather missing the point, but, despite the irreconcilability of opinion, it was surprisingly friendly exchange. Johnny was respectful and seemed genuinely interested in Bob’s opinion, as did Bob in his. From what both Rachel and Les had said, I hadn’t expected this, and I began to wonder if some sort of confirmation bias was occasionally at play. I asked Bob, as I had Les, what he thought about the conspicuously absent counter-protestors, and his response couldn’t have been more different. “Oh,” said Bob. “I think they’re wonderful. We have great conversations.” Indeed, having inquired about Johnny’s Easter holidays, Bob had already complimented him more than once on his “good questions.” “I try and engage them in reasoned debate, but they can get very upset,” continued Bob. “It’s understandable, because it’s a sensitive topic.”

A confrontation

At one point, a woman came up to Bob off the street. “You need to know your poster is anatomically incorrect!” she spat. Johnny, clapping like a child, looked like he was going to spontaneously combust with glee. “There’s no way that foetus is 11 weeks old. It’s got to be at least 24,” she continued. “You’re lying to people. You need to get a better sign.”

“How would you know?” asked Bob. The woman ripped off the cap she was wearing and shoved it under Bob’s nose. She looked balefully up at him from beneath lowered brows, and hissed, “Read the hat.” On it was written “Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners.” There was a brief silence as we watched the woman walk off and I tried not to laugh. It was broken by Elaine rather tellingly admitting that she was “not sure what a correct picture actually looks like.” Johnny helpfully pointed out the Anatomy Building across the road.

The Westboro Baptist Spectrum

It was time to bid farewell to my newfound acquaintances and head back to the real world. Tania came over and thanked me for my time, and Les gave me a jaunty wave – “Bye, Bridget!” Like I always say, there’s nothing like a guy getting your name wrong to make a girl feel special. It was close enough, though, and I waved back.

Maybe it was because they knew I was from Critic and knew my opinion of them would be published, or because I never told them my own stance (pro-choice), or because there was no counter-protest that day and they could go about their business in relative peace, but I never got the impression that these people were Westboro Baptist Church-type monsters (although I suppose they were on the spectrum).

Opposing an issue is not a particularly good use of anyone’s time if you aren’t willing to offer any solutions. The protestors have opinions that are unpopular
with mainstream society, and an alienating, confrontational method of expressing them that is even more so. They themselves seem well aware of this. “A lot of people come by, even the elderly, and they abuse the shit out of you,” Les told me gruffly. “We’re the moral minority.”
This article first appeared in Issue 9, 2013.
Posted 3:14pm Sunday 28th April 2013 by Brittany Mann.