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The dark messages behind the anti-abortion prayer vigils at Hallamshire Hospital

A '40 Days for Life' leaflet is pushing unscientific, unproven “treatment” in Sheffield and contains a devastating recommendation for people facing the loss of their baby. We talk to their Director of International Campaigns. 

A placard that says MY BODY MY CHOICE
Jasmine (Unsplash)

Abortion is a tricky topic for many, though YouGov polling suggests 87% of UK adults are pro-choice. After all, it's difficult to argue that forcing somebody to give birth when they don’t want to is anything other than brutal.

So when the 40 Days for Life campaign set up anti-abortion prayer vigils outside the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield recently, there were immediate steps taken to oppose it. Many local people did not want hospital patients, including those going for a termination, to be upset by the campaign’s presence.

Anti abortion protestors outside the Hallamshire Hospital

Anti abortion protestors outside Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield.

Ben Miskell

But when I looked more deeply into the actions of the campaign group, I uncovered unscientific claims and a disturbing recommendation for people facing tragedy when their baby is not going to survive.

On the 40 Days for Life website, people attending the Sheffield vigil can download a leaflet full of places to refer people to if they want an alternative to abortion. And, just as the 40 Days-style vigils are straight from the American evangelical Christian playbook, so are the resources they recommend. The leaflet lists pro-life organisations such as pregnancy crisis centres that are not transparent about their anti-choice aims.

But there were two particular recommendations on this leaflet that stood out to me as, frankly, egregious.

Unscientific “abortion reversal” claims

Abortion pills have become far more common than surgical options, with 83% of terminations in 2020 taking place medically, up from 73% in 2019. They are a safe and effective way to end a pregnancy, but 40 Days for Life says it's concerned that people are taking the first of two pills and then changing their minds.

While this is thought to be very rare, the 40 Days leaflet treats it as a common occurrence and recommends an unlicensed, unproven hormone “treatment” to reverse the abortion.

Information from 40 Days for Life about abortion pill reversal

Extract from the Sheffield 40 Days for Life leaflet entitled 'Organisations which provide help for women and couples facing an unexpected pregnancy and anyone seeking support after abortion.'

The leaflet states that, “Using the natural hormone progesterone, medical professionals have been able to save 64-68% of pregnancies through abortion pill reversal”. It goes on to recommend an American website for further information.

Not only is this data questionable, but multiple reputable medical organisations – including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists – have slated the idea of abortion pill reversal, saying in a joint statement, “We are concerned that there are anti-abortion groups recommending progesterone and as a medical organisation we wish to make it clear that this approach isn’t supported by clinical evidence.”

On this topic, international NGO MSI Reproductive Choices told Now Then that "the overwhelming majority of people who opt for a medical abortion are very sure about their decision, and research confirms that very few regret their choice.

"In the extremely rare event that someone does change their mind having taken abortion medication, it’s vital that they are fully supported by a non-judgemental team who can provide impartial information and independent counselling about all the options. Instead, those offering ‘abortion reversal’ services choose to impose their own beliefs and remove patients, many of whom are already in a distressed and vulnerable state, from legitimate NHS services.”

I approached 40 Days for Life and was referred to Robert Colquhoun, the organisation’s Director of International Campaigns. When asked about abortion pill reversal, Colquhoun tells me about a doctor called Dermot Kearney who, despite being a cardiologist, has been offering this hormone treatment to pregnant people who change their mind after taking mifepristone, the first of the two drugs used to induce an abortion.

Dr Kearney was barred from practising medicine without supervision while the General Medical Council (GMC) investigated his use of the unlicensed drug following a complaint by several organisations. The GMC has since dropped that restriction.

A randomised controlled trial into abortion pill reversal has never been completed. The only one that was attempted was cut short after several participants haemorrhaged. Most of the studies cited by pro-lifers that suggest a positive outcome were carried out by the person who invented the “treatment” and published in a pro-life journal. Mitchell Creinin, the author of the halted trial, told WIRED that “there are no studies that prove that this works,” saying the studies by the creator of the treatment are “bogus crap” with no control group or ethics review committee.

For babies who won’t survive

Anti-abortion protesters are often accused of insensitivity – for failing to take into account people's very real circumstances when they want or need to terminate a pregnancy. Robert Colquhoun told me that “many of [40 Days'] volunteers are very genuine, authentic, good, honest, decent people. And they really care about either people who are going to the abortion centre, or to the hospital.”

While he says he's aware that people praying publicly with anti-abortion placards could upset hospital patients, Colquhoun justifies their presence on the basis that “this is a matter of very serious importance of life and death”.

“[Those at the vigil] also feel that their message and presence there will positively impact other people, even though some people might feel upset or not happy that they're there.”

But if their presence alone is upsetting to many, one recommendation on their leaflet is closer to devastating to anybody who needs to terminate a much-wanted pregnancy because their baby is not going to survive.

Because, if you are going to lose your baby, 40 Days for Life still does not want you to terminate the pregnancy. It instead refers you to Bluebell Wood – a children’s hospice – as “an alternative to abortion”.

A recommendation from 40 Days for Life about Bluebell Wood

Extract from the Sheffield 40 Days for Life leaflet entitled 'Organisations which provide help for women and couples facing an unexpected pregnancy and anyone seeking support after abortion.'

40 Days for Life wants you to carry a pregnancy to term if you know that your baby cannot survive, and its leaflet links to the stories of three babies who died at Bluebell Wood Children's Hospice in South Yorkshire as examples.

Approached for comment, Bluebell Wood told Now Then it did not know that 40 Days was referring people to them for this purpose and that they had not agreed to this recommendation.

The hospice told Now Then, “Bluebell Wood Children's Hospice cares for children with life-threatening and life-shortening conditions. We support the whole family and our referrals range from pre-natal to young adults, dependent on family circumstance and need.

“We were unaware that 40 Days for Life were referring people to Bluebell Wood as an alternative to abortion, and we have not been approached by them.”

After initially denying that this recommendation is hosted on the 40 Days website, Colquhoun accepts that it is. He sounds resistant to admitting that Bluebell Wood is on the list as somewhere to refer parents whose babies won’t survive, but doesn't offer any other explanation.

Colquhoun downplays the significance of this recommendation. “I can't imagine that they've referred anyone from the Sheffield vigil to Bluebell Hospital so far, I’d highly doubt it.” He distances 40 Days for Life from the leaflet, saying it's "a flyer from the local group”. It is, however, hosted on the 40 Days website.

When I push Colquhoun to admit that the children’s hospice is on the list as an alternative to terminating a pregnancy where a baby will not survive, he concedes that “it’s not technically irrelevant that [Bluebell Wood] are on that list”.

For me, this is where the idea of pro-life campaigners being kindly folk who just want to save lives comes unstuck. I ask if the 40 Days position would really be for somebody to continue with a pregnancy if they knew their child could definitely not survive, and Colquhoun is unequivocal. Abortion is always wrong in his mind. Always.

He cites a video he saw in which parents were told a baby was going to die at birth and it actually lived to 100 days old. “It seems cruel in the sense [that] this is a totally hopeless situation, why wouldn't you provide a solution for that? But some of the videos I've seen on this topic, it's like the intense joy, gratitude of the parents has been quite surprising.

“We are opposed to abortion in all circumstances, including the most difficult, the most trying.”

Uncompromising fundamentalism exposes the lie at the heart of many so-called pro-life campaigners. When being unable to access safe, legal abortion services kills – as we know it does – and you continue to advocate for that, calling your campaign 'pro-life' is a dangerous misrepresentation.

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