Tonight's Dispatches episode - what to expect?
Posted by Alithea Williams on 5 October 2016
Cathy Newman: The Channel 4 presenter reveals her own abortion on the programme. Image: Channel 4
Tonight will see the broadcast of a Channel 4 Dispatches episode called "Undercover: Britain's Abortion extremists." This show alleges that the pro-life groups 40 Days for Life (40DFL) and the Good Counsel Network (GCN) harass and intimidate women. Both groups conduct peaceful and lawful prayer-vigils (not "demonstrations") and categorically deny the allegations. The very title of the show is not reassuring - is it likely that this will be a fair and balanced exploration of the issue of pavement counselling? SPUC has already expressed concerns that the programme excludes the voices of the very women that GCN helps.
To hear the voices of these women, see GCN's video.
There are additional reasons to fear that this is no more than a hatchet job against the GCN. The programme has not yet aired, but this letter, sent by the executive producer of the company behind the programme, to Robert Colquhoun of 40 days for Life, leaves little hope that the programme will present the pro-life side of the argument fairly.
What about the women?
Although the letter purports to offer balance by inviting Robert a chance to respond to accusations made in the programme against 40DFL (albeit only in a written statement that they would have full editorial control of), its tone tells a different story. All the groups the producer refers too are lumped together as "anti-abortion protest groups". 40DFL vigils are specifically about prayer, not protest, but no-where is this mentioned. There is also no mention of the fact that both 40DFL and GCN offer help (freely given and often welcomed) to women in crisis pregnancies. Instead, he only refers to women who have been allegedly "harassed outside clinics." It seems extraordinary that not only have they refused to speak women who have been given help by these organisations; they don't even acknowledge that such help is offered.
The content of the programme, as revealed by the letter, is even more troubling. They cite evidence against the claim that abortion has a negative effect on women's mental health by referencing "The latest report by the American Psychological Association in August 2008." This, they say, confirms "that there is no credible evidence to show that elective abortions carried out on unwanted pregnancies pose a threat to a woman's mental health." The only problem with this is that the report in 2008 is NOT the latest. There have been several since then, including David Fergusson's 2009 study (which followed one in 2008) and one by Priscilla Coleman in 2011. That the makers of the programme have not even bothered to find the latest research does not bode well for the overall accuracy. Given that (the pro-choice) Dr Fergusson concluded that “those having an abortion and reporting negative reactions had rates of mental health disorders that were approximately 1.4–1.8 times higher than those not having an abortion&" it is not, however, surprising.
All protests lead to murder?
One of the most unpleasant aspects of the letter is how it links UK pro-life movements (who even they admit disavow violence) to murders by "anti-abortion extremists" in the US. The programme is to explore how groups such as 40DFL “can inspire others who have committed violent acts.” Linking peaceful vigils with the murder of abortionists, which of course any pro-life person would unequivocally condemn, is an irresponsible and cheap shock tactic. Moreover, the logic expressed is deeply flawed. They quote Vicki Saporta of the National Abortion Federation (a neutral source!) as saying:
"...we didn't start in the United States with murders, we started in the United States with people peacefully protesting, and when that didn't stop abortion they escalated their tactics."
By that logic, surely nobody should be allowed to peacefully protest at all, in case they turn into murderers?
Campaign for buffer zones
But people appear to be taking this line of argument seriously. The letter quotes Keir Starmer MP, who advocates for buffer zones outside abortion clinics as saying: "on the face of it there is nothing wrong with groups in America and groups in the United Kingdom, talking about protest and how they do it. But it is the tactics of it, and these are carefully constructed tactics that are intended to absolutely cause anxiety and concern. ln America this has gone even further than we've seen in this country and I think because of that link we have to work on the basis this conduct will escalate here."
So Mr Starmer, and the makers of this programme, have decided, with no evidence at all, that peaceful vigils are inevitably going to turn violent, and so must be legislated away. It is clear that Dispatches has found no trace of violence in the organisations they have investigated. They cannot even uphold the more nebulous claim of harassment, as there are laws in place which would deal with that. Therefore, the abortion lobby (which loses income when women decide not to abort) is trying to invent new offences with which to target pavement counsellors. I say the abortion lobby, because the involvement of Keir Starmer makes it clear that this is part of a political campaign. It also cannot be a coincidence that this very week, BPAS has placed an advert in the Guardian, screaming that "fanatical campaigners are increasingly protesting outside UK abortion clinics" and asking for donations to lobby MPs for buffer zones.
So, be aware. The Dispatches programme tonight almost certainly won't present a balanced view of the debate around pavement counselling, or any debate at all. They have refused to speak to any of the women who have been given help to keep their babies, and have not properly engaged with the organisations themselves. Nor have they actually researched the latest work on abortion and mental health. Instead they have resorted to scare tactics and completely unsubstantiated links to violence, in order to promote a political campaign for buffer zones.
I'm sure that Dispatches will talk a lot about women's choice. One choice they are clearly not in favour of is the one to accept help and support from pavement counsellors.