Just before the start of Lent, the Students Union at the University of East Anglia voted overwhelmingly to organise a protest outside the abortion clinic on Bowthorpe Road, Norwich. They were responding to news that a 40 Days for Life vigil would be taking place, and they were determined to face down the pro-life group. They resolved, if necessary, to put on buses for students, to ensure continued free access for women to the clinic.
On the opening day of the vigil, a group of students gathered at the bottom of Bowthorpe Road, apparently bemused by the lack of evidence for intimidation. After a little reconnaissance, they processed past on the opposite pavement, banner discreetly rolled. Observing just a few Christians calmly praying, but no harassment against which they could protest, they slipped away and did not return.
A member of academic staff at the University, who had heard rumours of intimidation, came down to see for herself, and went back saying that this was far from what was being presented at the University.
A writer for the university magazine Concretefollowed her, introducing himself to the 40 Days group as being pro-choice. Later he published his article about the vigil under the surprising title: A long way from a pitchforked mob.
The most evident fruit of the vigil, commented Fr Henry Whisenant from St Johns Cathedral, is hearts and minds being changed
Over the six weeks of Lent around 50 different people took part in the vigil. There was mercifully little hostility towards them, though a little monitoring, including a lady who lingered on the pavement opposite and took photographs.
A few passers-by pulled up their vehicles on the double yellow lines or walked up to make negative remarks, some of them sharp and not all of them printable. But these were outnumbered by the friendly hoots, the thumbs-up signs, and the keep it up comments. One woman approached the 40 Days group and confided that when younger she had gone through with an abortion, because no-one had been there to support her. Thank you so much for being here, she said.
On the very first day a man in his thirties approached Katy, the vigil organiser, to ask what was going on. I’ve been through this myself, he revealed. When me and my girlfriend were teenagers she got pregnant, and had an abortion. Now we’re Christians, married with children. But we still sometimes think about what happened. Thank you for standing here it’s important that people know there is help.
A woman hovered on the pavement opposite, studying the sign which said: Pregnant? Worried?Finally she crossed the road and asked for prayer for a friend of hers, who was disabled and pregnant.
Another young woman, a cut on her face and in poor health, stopped to ask the way to the abortion clinic. She fell into conversation, and accepted a card from the 40 Days group. They prayed as she headed for the clinic, and she emerged only a short time later, hood up, and went off. We may never know what fruit that short exchange brought in her life.
We do know, however, that every prayer has an effect and, occasionally, we get a glimpse of encouragement like a ray of sunshine on an overcast day. A volunteer at a pregnancy counselling centre in Norwich reported that until recently she was mostly seeing women who needed emotional help following an abortion. In recent weeks to her amazement she was counselling noticeably more pregnant women who wanted guidance about how to keep their babies. One had come in the very day before she was booked for an abortion, and had chosen life for her child.
When Bishop Alan Hopes attended one of the first pro-life vigils in London, a certain young woman was on the pavement nearby, vehemently protesting against him. She had herself undergone an abortion. That young woman has since had a change of attitude and is again practising her faith in Norwich.
Hearts and minds changed: that is the fruit we are seeing and that is why the work will continue.
Pictured above is a group at the 40 Days for Life Vigil outside the abortion clinic in Norwich.