Women forced to run gauntlet of abortion zealots
CS Lewis knew a thing or two about interfering zealots. He came from the north of Ireland, after all. "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive," he once wrote. "It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies."
How remarkably apt that seems in today's political climate, where many a complacent, fundamentalist backside takes up space on the blue leather seats at Stormont.
But it's not just in the Assembly that hectoring busybodies, convinced of their supreme righteousness, are hard at work, trying to dictate the terms of how people live their own private lives.
For instance, there are quite a few hanging about outside the doors of the Marie Stopes Clinic in Great Victoria Street, ready to accost any woman whom they judge to be of childbearing age, just in case she could be considering a termination.
I've been confronted by them myself and it was a weird and unpleasant experience: being pursued along a busy city street by a mad-eyed young woman who kept blocking my path and who wouldn't stop until I threatened to call the police.
I got the impression she was rather enjoying herself, but I felt pretty shaken up and angry. I can't imagine how it must feel for a woman who really is undergoing the extreme stress of a crisis pregnancy.
Sarah Ewart, who found herself in the highly distressing position of carrying a foetus with anencephaly, meaning it couldn't survive outside the womb, had a horrendous encounter with protesters outside the FPA offices in Belfast, where she and her mother went for advice. They followed the two distraught women, waving signs and banners, yelling into their faces that they were killing a life.
I cannot understand why these people are allowed to get away with such lamentable and aggressive behaviour. But it seems that they can and so they do.
That's why the Marie Stopes Clinic is introducing an escort scheme, so that vulnerable women wanting to visit the centre can at least have a supportive person walking alongside them as they run the gauntlet of screeching tract-wavers.
Volunteers for the scheme have been put through an intensive training programme, so they know what to expect and how to react and some may be wearing special body CCTV cameras, in order to monitor proceedings.
This, it seems, is what it now takes to protect a woman who – entirely of her own volition – wishes to access healthcare services to which she is legally entitled. For goodness sake, she might only be nipping in for a contraception consultation, but she'll still get the full hysterical treatment from the self-appointed posse at the door.
Now, just to add to the fun, we learn that an American anti-abortion clinic plans to set up shop near to the Marie Stopes centre. This is the first foray outside the United States for Stanton Healthcare, which describes itself as "a revolutionary organisation that seeks to replace abortion businesses around the world".
Its tactics are well-rehearsed. In the States, what such clinics do is deliberately choose premises close to established not-for-profit healthcare providers, such as Planned Parenthood, which offer abortion services, seeking to divert women into their own centres.
Now, if it complies with the law and provides honest and fair information, then one cannot dispute the Stanton Healthcare centre's right to open in Belfast. But caution is required.
Some anti-abortion clinics have a disreputable history of giving out biased, misleading and blatantly incorrect information, to frighten clients into continuing with an unwanted pregnancy.
And even at their very best, by their own admission, such clinics are not offering neutral advice, which is what any woman desperately needs, so that she has all the facts necessary to make up her own mind, about her own body.
In spite of the rhetoric of choice and compassion which some anti-abortion campaigners have learned to adopt, all too many of them believe that the end justifies the means.
They are moral absolutists and their sole goal is the avoidance of abortion: how that happens and what distress, or duplicity, or dirty tactics, occur along the way, is irrelevant.
That's why CS Lewis preferred the cruelty, or the greed, of robbers to the harsh machinations of zealots, because it was less relentless.
"Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."