Fionola Meredith: Why putting up graphic images of foetuses in a bid to shock us is an affront to public decency
We wouldn't put up with images of pornography, so why should we have to put up with this, asks Fionola Meredith
When my children were at primary school, I always avoided driving them home along University Street in Belfast. I didn't want to expose them to the obscene images of aborted foetuses hanging from the trees and lamp-posts outside the FPA (Family Planning Association) offices, which were then located in that part of town.
Young children coming out of a long day at school need an afternoon snack and maybe a scamper in the park. Not a gratuitous horror-show put on by hyper-religious zealots, which would give the kids nightmares for weeks.
I found it astonishing then, and still do today, that anti-abortion campaigners are permitted to display these incredibly offensive images in public. The lurid pictures - devoid of context, and often inflated to a vast scale - are frequently seen at so-called 'pro-life' protests in Belfast city centre.
Whether it's locals or tourists - present in rapidly increasingly numbers - nobody should have to put up with such an extreme and unwarranted visual assault when they walk our streets. This city should be a safe, shared space of mutual respect; a friendly, welcoming place where everyone can feel comfortable, including families with children.
But it's not just kids who find such grotesque images deeply upsetting.
Last Saturday, local businesswoman Barbara Whearty confronted a group of anti-abortion protesters in Belfast, which included teenagers from the Youth for Life wing of Precious Life.
The cafe owner, who has recently given birth to a child, had previously suffered a miscarriage. The images on display brought back the pain of that terrible experience.
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On social media, where she has received both support and vitriolic abuse for her actions, Ms Whearty said: "One part of me keeps asking why I didn't just walk on past, but I know that I couldn't have, it hit me right in a weak spot that's particularly vulnerable."
She claims that her business is now being trolled with one star reviews: "All because I lost a child and didn't want to be reminded of it every time I walk through town."
Why should a suffering woman be callously retraumatised on the streets of her own city? Why should anyone have to look at this stuff?
The usual answer from hardline anti-abortion groups is that the images are disturbing because abortion is disturbing. They say that it's a matter of freedom of expression and the right to protest.
But that's not good enough. It is morally, if not legally, wrong to impose such images on the general public. It is, or should be, an offence to public decency.
We would reasonably object - and indeed expect the police to intervene - if anti-pornography campaigners started plastering our streets with X-rated images of intimate body parts, in order to show us how degrading 'adult entertainment' is.
Likewise, if vegan militants festooned the place with gross pictures of decapitated chickens, to demonstrate the supposed evils of meat-eating.
Would we tolerate a campaign against homicide that showed images of stabbed bodies? Of course not.
So why can't the city authorities protect the rights of citizens to go about their daily business without encountering this kind of extreme imagery?
There's also the issue of the teenagers taking part in the kind of anti-abortion protest that Ms Whearty encountered.
Personally, I cannot understand how any parent in their senses would allow their child to stand alongside a graphic display which purports to show the bloody remains of an 11-week foetus - a display which also carries the insidious myth that abortion causes breast cancer.
Permitting under-18s to participate in street action like this also potentially exposes them to public vilification, from passers-by who are opposed to the extremist tactics.
Where is the duty of care to these children? Who is protecting them? It's wrong to treat these teenage activists as junior martyrs to the 'pro-life' cause.
Even those who are radically opposed to abortion find such tactics both reprehensible and counter-productive to their own agenda. An article in the Catholic Herald acknowledges that many people resent being shown unsolicited 'nasty pictures' as they walk down the street, as well as having their children exposed to 'gory photography'.
The writer concludes that: "This natural disgust and resentment is then exploited gleefully by the abortion lobby, who proceed to caricature pro-lifers as cruel and unfeeling bullies who wish to browbeat and shame vulnerable women."
Well, here's a thought. If anti-abortion activists do not wish to be perceived as hateful, callous bullies, the answer is quite simple.
They should stop shamelessly flaunting images of aborted foetuses in the faces of grieving mothers and innocent children.