The classroom is no place for pro-life speakers

‘The stark truth is that a woman who has been raped might want to have an abortion’


Recently one of the world’s most prolific pro-life campaigners visited Northern Ireland and spoke to audiences at Stormont, Queen’s University Union, and reportedly some schools. Unfortunately it is our country, so determined to prevent women from having autonomy over their own bodies that they’ve brought in the big guns to scare and shame children about the deeply polarising and emotional topic of abortion.

American Rebecca Kiessling was invited by Bernadette Smyth, the director of pro-life group Precious Life, to participate in events promoting the pro-life argument. When Kiessling was eighteen she discovered that she had been conceived through rape. Her key message is that she owes her life to the law that protected her, since abortion was illegal at the time in her home state of Michigan. Her birth mother visited two backstreet abortion clinics before deciding instead to keep the child and give it up for adoption. Her story is powerful and speaks to thousands of women who decide to carry through with their pregnancy after being raped, and indeed their children. I respect her mother’s choice and the choices that any woman makes with her body.

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Yes, the very same Jim who thinks women will lie about rape in order to have an abortion.

However, what’s best for one woman might not be for another. The stark truth is that a woman who has been raped might want to have an abortion. Whatever our own experiences, feelings, and thoughts tell us about how we would act in this situation, are irrelevant. If a woman has been impregnated during one of the most horrendous experiences of her life wants an abortion, who are we to judge her? More importantly, who are we to rob her of the access to a safe abortion? We can’t consider ourselves to live in a free, privileged, Western society when we won’t even allow this basic human right for women and girls.

Northern Ireland’s stance on abortion has been condemned worldwide and in June the UN ruled that the criminalisation of accessing abortion services in Ireland violated a woman’s human rights. We operate on legislation dating from 1861, making abortion illegal even in cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormalities. There are certainly other laws dating back as far as this that are still valid, but since we skipped the 106 year update, this legislation is clearly out of touch – much like the antiquated views of our politicians.

It is completely unacceptable that pro-life campaigners are being invited and allowed to speak in schools. Adolescents are extremely impressionable and will often mould their views in accordance with what they’ve been exposed to. A pro-life presentation will involve false information and emotionally manipulative models of the foetus at different stages of development. This misinformation around abortion can range from the inaccurate and hurtful claim that it can damage maternal instinct and bonding process with future children, to the blatantly dangerous lie that it can lead to breast cancer – which has never been proven.

The models of the foetus that have become synonymous with the pro-life movement here in Belfast, serve no purpose but to emotionally manipulate and shame women. Everybody knows what abortion is, so there is no need to display such things. Women don’t get abortions for the hell of it; they have legitimate concerns about the financial, physical and psychological impact a pregnancy would have on their lives, and will often carry the effects of the abortion with them for the rest of their life.

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Pro-life campaigners outside QUB (Photo taken by Niall Coleman for The Gown Independent Newspaper)

Furthermore, it is likely that in an address to a school of teenagers, at least one girl present will have had an abortion – considering 833 women from Northern Ireland travelled elsewhere in the UK to access abortion services in 2015. Listening to a campaigner talk about abortion as murder and how it is never okay under any circumstances would be disturbing for any girl, never mind someone who has actually gone through one. Kiessling’s argument that the law saved her life is all well and good, but it is simply too black and white. Just because her mother made a certain decision, doesn’t mean that other women should be forced to do the same.

The unbendingly sanctimonious position of pro-lifers shames girls for putting themselves first, and also has echoes of the time-honoured myth that a woman’s only function is to bear children. I’m not suggesting a teenage pregnancy ruins a girl’s education or limits her to the role of mother, but if abortion is not accessible to girls, there is a risk that it could have these very effects for some. We should trust girls to make this difficult choice for themselves, and support them in whichever direction they choose. Allowing these speakers into schools does nothing but further stigmatise abortion and potentially add extra trauma to a teenager who has made the choice to terminate her pregnancy. And what good does shaming do? Mental health issues are on the rise in teenage girls and schools should not be facilitating the worsening of these.

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Since abortion is such a polarising subject, division between students may occur after these talks. Now, a good argument is healthy amongst young people, but this is not possible if the only side allowed to speak their case. If abortion is to be discussed in schools it must be done so in a neutral manner. This could mean a debate between a pro-choice and pro-life speaker, where students can hear opposing views and digest the facts, allowing for intelligent thought and the ability to decide for themselves after hearing all sides.

I believe we are on the brink of a turning point in Northern Ireland’s abortion law. With feminist thinking entering the mainstream narrative, it seems that women’s voices are finally being heard. But neutrality must be demanded from schools – we cannot have only the pro-life argument communicated to children while wilfully ignoring the increasing demand for change.