Is the daily anti-abortion vigil for Lent a peaceful, prayer-focused protest, or is it more intimidating than that? Alex Braae reports.
Every day when staff from the Auckland Medical Aid Centre go to work they are stared at. Across the road a rotating group of people wait for them in the morning and they’re still there when they leave at night. Those watching people see who comes and goes. They’re always watching, day after day returning to train their hard stares on the front door.
This has been the reality for AMAC staff over Lent. Family Life International NZ members have spent 12 hours every day standing outside the clinic as part of their Forty Days for Life campaign. On Sunday evenings they gather to sing hymns and turn the other cheek to barbs flung from passing cars. After Lent they’ll revert back to gathering once a week.
The clinic, among other services, provides abortions. General manager of AMAC Lesley Wood has had decades in the field and has faced it before. She’s had worse: she’s been threatened, followed and on one occasion assaulted. From her window, looking out towards the Countdown carpark, she can see their signs.
“It’s very judgmental,” she says. “If they are out there praying for women and unborn children, why can’t they do that in their own churches? It is about intimidation.”
This year’s vigils are led by Michael Loretz. As he says at every possible opportunity, his group are “against violence in all forms”. He includes abortion as violence against an unborn child. Nobody in the group starts fights but there have been skirmishes. One time a man, unaffiliated with the small group counter-protesting Forty Days for Choice, strode along the line grabbing signs and throwing them on the road. A few of the more burly men emerged from the vigil and walked him away. It was a brief show of force from the vigil participants and the message was clear: we’re standing our ground.
The disconnect between them and a society that has largely accepted abortion is deep. Before a significant Sunday night vigil, Loretz crossed the street and blessed the door of the clinic with holy water. The vigils of groups like Family Life International are among the last bastions of confrontational Christianity in New Zealand.
The ideological struggle over abortion stretches back decades, sometimes taking place on city streets, sometimes in Parliament. In the late 80s militant group Operation Rescue launched a direct action campaign. Internationally clinics have been bombed, doctors have been murdered. Though times change the battle continues: in late March a Charlotte, North Carolina clinic claimed to have been cyber-attacked. Security at abortion clinics is extremely tight, with cameras, doors that can only be unlocked from reception and discreet secondary entrances.
Even with those security measures and assurances from Loretz that his group is not violent, the effect of the vigils on staff is clear. It’s acknowledged by Lesley Wood, who says for staff it “just gets tiring”. The posters for the Lent campaign proudly boast that dozens of clinics have been closed and more than a hundred abortion workers have quit their jobs. These figures are self-reported from Forty Days for Life events around the world since 2007, so it’s impossible to know their accuracy or if they include places where extremely confrontational tactics were used.
Loretz himself said that he wouldn’t be surprised if the vigils affected staff. He is praying for them.
Is there a better way to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions?
For Lesley Wood abortion is a question of health. She believes women seeking an abortion shouldn’t be treated any differently from any other person seeking a medical service. That’s irreconcilable for Loretz, who says, “Abortion cannot be treated as a health issue… because it adversely destroys the health of the unborn child.”
Despite the ongoing tension, one under-reported fact is that the abortion rate is dropping dramatically. From a peak of 18,511 in 2003 the number of procedures fell to 13,155 in 2015. There are many factors that could explain this decline, but in Lesley Wood’s view, vigils aren’t one of them. She says they’re ineffective in changing the minds of women and can even firm up their decisions to terminate a pregnancy.
What actually works, says Wood, is long-term reversible contraception.
All women who ask at a New Zealand clinic for an abortion are provided with information about contraception options, to prevent future unplanned pregnancies. Staff also check that women have considered adopting the baby out. A Washington University School of Medicine study suggests New Zealand providers are on the right track. It found provision of contraceptives like the pill lowered abortion rates in St Louis. Wood stresses that her clinic does not exist to promote abortions – they talk through the options and the service when it is appropriate and there is no alternative.
Loretz is unmoved by this argument. In his view, “Artificial contraception breeds a particular attitude about what sex is for.” Sex should only take place between a husband and wife, because contraception will fail and, for non-married couples, “It’s only a matter of time before an unwanted pregnancy comes along and abortion might seem like a viable way to solve the problem.” He too cited studies. One from Duke University noted restricting funding for abortion clinics did lower the abortion rate, but not the teen pregnancy rate.
Regardless of whether the law is tightened or relaxed, Loretz confirmed they will be back for Lent next year. The government showed no appetite last year to introduce “no protest zones” around abortion clinics, and regardless, a measure like that would likely just result in a move down the road. The current set of legal compromises we’ve got will likely be around for a long time.
Throughout it all, the trend indicates that abortion rates will continue to fall. Lesley Wood will keep counselling women who come to her clinic on their options, keep promoting contraception, and keep terminating pregnancies. Michael Loretz will keep praying.
Alex Braae is a producer at Newstalk ZB, student journalist and protest photographer.
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