To understand a man, you’ve got to walk a mile in his shoes, whether they fit or not.” It was this Muslim proverb that inspired Timothy Kurek, an anti-homosexual conservative Christian from Nashville, to spend a year under-cover, pretending to be gay.
Having dismissed gay people as 'fags' who were destined to burn in hell, Kurek now came face to face with the isolation and repression of life as a gay man in Bible-belt America: the abuse, the rejection, the naked prejudice. His experience made him knock down and rebuild his entire belief system.
Few of us would be prepared to go as far as Kurek did, but walking a metaphorical mile in someone else's uncomfortable, ill-fitting shoes is a healthy exercise. It forces you to re-examine and re-evaluate rigid assumptions. It shows you that, no matter how well you think you know yourself, you can never be entirely sure how you will act, or what choices you will make, especially when you're in a crisis situation.
The militant anti-abortion lobby, who are currently working themselves into a wild-eyed frenzy over the opening of the new Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, would do well to try on those shoes for size.
So how about the pair belonging to a suicidal 16-year-old rape victim, pregnant and distraught, with no-one to turn to? Or the pair belonging to an expectant mother who has discovered that her longed-for baby is severely disabled and will be born dead? Or the pair belonging to a woman who has been diagnosed with life-threatening cancer, and has found herself unexpectedly pregnant?
Have the heartless zealots stopped, for even one moment, to consider the anguish and confusion these people are experiencing? Their desperate need for calm, objective, non-judgemental support, for someone to sit down with them and explain the options — and I mean all the options, including termination, as well as continuing the pregnancy — so that they can make an informed decision about how to proceed with such a momentous choice, one that may affect their whole lives?
Of course they haven't. They don't need to speak to real women, or place themselves in their shoes. Because they have already made up their minds: abortion is always, always, always wrong. They may use the language of compassion and care, they may adopt the rhetoric of choice, they may talk with saccharine sentimentality about saving the lives of little babies.
Yet their sole objective is single-minded and ruthless: to prevent terminations, no matter what the cost to the mother or, ultimately, to the child. And, as far as they are concerned, the end justifies the means. So if that involves peddling untruths — such as the baseless claim that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer by 50% — or haranguing women on the street, waving pictures of aborted foetuses in their faces, and yelling hysterically about murder, they will do it.
It would be appalling if women's access to their own reproductive rights was obstructed or denied by such witless barbarism. Yet many members of the Assembly, including government ministers, evidently share the same viewpoint — that abortion is always unacceptable — and are prepared to pursue an explicitly anti-abortion agenda, even when they do not practise the militant tactics.
The opening of the Marie Stopes centre has thrown Stormont into disarray. Health Minister Edwin Poots claims that “pro-choice is no choice”, an illogical, meaningless mantra, and — farcically — wants to call in the cops to monitor the clinic. Where is the independence and neutrality one is entitled to expect from a government minister?
Meanwhile, members of the SDLP speak sanctimoniously about “maximum compassion” for women with crisis pregnancies, but deny them real choice. And Sinn Fein has a bitchy, irrelevant swipe at clinic director Dawn Purvis for working for a private healthcare provider, while vacillating between opposition to abortion and acknowledging that, in certain circumstances, the decision to terminate lies with the woman.
If we left sorting out abortion rights for the women of Northern Ireland to this lot, we'd be waiting until kingdom come.
Fortunately, Dawn Purvis and Marie Stopes have taken the initiative. Tomorrow, the new clinic will open. Yes, there will be abortions available to women who find themselves in extreme circumstances, their physical or mental wellbeing under serious threat. But none of us can truly claim to understand, let alone judge or condemn them, unless we have been there ourselves, wearing those same shoes.