I was walking through Gatwick airport last Sunday morning when a woman came running. "Mr McCann, Mr McCann!" I lengthened my stride. I tend to get stopped every now and again by people wanting to talk about this and that. But I needed to be on the express to London Bridge an hour ago. She was too fast for me, however. Or maybe just more highly motivated. She caught up and swerved in front and leaned in, her nose about 12 inches from mine.
Her face was illuminated with an ecstatic smile which I momentarily mistook for delight at being in such close proximity to myself. Somewhat self-regarding, I admit.
"I'm terribly sorry," I began. "I have to rush ... "
It was then that I noticed that the smile was fixed, immobile, manic, and her eyes wide, unblinking, glazed: "I know you are in favour of abortion."
Anyone who has ever publicly espoused support for a woman's right to choose will have a fair idea what comes next.
My first mistake was to engage her in conversation. I tried to explain that I am not so much in favour of abortion as in favour of women being able to make up their own minds whether to have an abortion or not. "Every little baby is precious in the eyes of God," she responded.
It might be thought that extricating oneself from such a situation would be no problem. Just walk. "I'm in a real hurry, I'm late, I have to go", I pleaded, shifting my feet, edging away. She was having none of it. A hand now gripped onto my forearm, firmly enough for me to realise that it might take some tugging back and forth to break free.
"Please let go of my arm," I demanded, in what I hoped was a tone of affronted dignity. Passers-by hurrying and scurrying were beginning to look our way. Her smile never wavered. Her grip tightened.
"Millions of women have been destroyed by abortion, you must know that. But God's mercy ... " I put a hand on top of the hand gripping me to begin to prise it away. She clasped a hand over my hand. People were now stopping to look.
She mentioned a member of my extended family by name. "They say she has had abortions. Think of how many little babies there might be running around ... " Still the smile.
That isn't all of it, but it's the gist. Expletives were eventually deployed in profusion (by me) to bring the encounter to a close. "God still loves you," she alleged as I stalked off.
I wondered as the train rattled in to London what it is that gives certain sorts of religious people to believe they have a right to accost others in public places to denounce their beliefs and urge them to change their ways. True, not all such approaches are as belligerent as I had just experienced. I am not surprised any more when somebody I don't know comes close and confides that, "I pray for you." Nor do I find it upsetting. I think such people generally mean well.
But even so, it would never occur to me to button-hole somebody coming out of a church on Sunday morning to tell them that the event they have just attended is superstitious nonsense that no grown-up person should give credence to, that they should be done with the Supreme Being fantasy and devote themselves instead to making the material world we live in a better place, that by gazing upwards into emptiness they are missing out on the glories of nature and the wonders of human accomplishment all around and within them, that they might die in despair at realising too late that they had made a wasteland of their lives, had deprived themselves entirely of the spiritual joy that can come only from communion with beauty and truth.
You'll die screaming, and all the more loudly because you'll know it's been all your own fault, I could tell them. But I don't. Because daft as I might believe their philosophy to be, they are entitled to whatever beliefs come most congenially to them.
Likewise, I have never planted myself before somebody I don't know but whom I recognise as a pro-lifer to insist that they acknowledge women's right to control their own bodies. That wouldn't occur to me either, or to any other pro-choice person I know.
What makes them believe they are licensed to insult or wound or belittle and hurt anyone who acts according to their own conscientious beliefs in a way of which pro-lifers disapprove? Who do they think they are, and why do we let them away with it?