By Isabel Van Brugen, MA Newspaper Journalism ~
A Northern Irish crisis pregnancy healthcare centre set up by US pro-life activists has been secretly recorded saying abortion causes breast cancer and infertility, an undercover investigation has found.
A counsellor from the Belfast clinic of Stanton Healthcare was recorded telling an undercover reporter that she was “too beautiful for abortion”, a termination would make her breasts “fill with cancer” and that pregnancy increases the risk of breast cancer by up to 100 per cent.
The claims have been condemned by the UK’s most senior gynaecologist, Professor Lesley Regan, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), as “deliberately misleading, despicable and shameful” and bullying of vulnerable women.
The US pro-life organisation Stanton Healthcare, set up by Brandi Swindell in 2006, describes itself on its website as providing “up-to-date, medically accurate, non-biased” information for pregnant women. It opened a Belfast branch in 2015 in partnership with Precious Life, a pro-life group, in 2015.
Abortion is only legal in Northern Ireland in cases where the life of the mother is at risk, and there are currently no laws in place regulating rogue crisis pregnancy agencies in Northern Ireland.
There have been increasing calls for prime minister Theresa May to support reform in Northern Ireland since the Republic voted to enhance abortion rights in a landslide win for the repeal side. Theresa May has resisted pressure from MPs to liberalise the law, saying decisions should be taken by the Stormont assembly, which is currently suspended.
Ireland voted overwhelmingly to overturn its strict abortion laws by 66.4% to 33.6% in decisive the referendum vote in the Republic to repeal a constitutional ban on terminations.
An undercover reporter, who used the name Laura and told Stanton Healthcare she was five weeks pregnant, was told by the counsellor that she was highly likely to develop breast cancer if she were to have an abortion.
“You would be high risk. There’s no doubt about that,” the counsellor said. “Studies would show that you would be in the firing line.”
The counsellor cited an alleged US report which apparently studied 24,500 cases of breast cancer “directly linked to abortion”. The counsellor claimed that abortions cause breast tissue to mutate into cancer cells because of a sudden reduction in hormones.
“Women who had an abortion before their first baby had a 50% risk of developing breast cancer,” she said. “A woman who had an abortion after the first child, had a 30% risk.”
She warned, “Girls under 18 who have an abortion – this is drastic – the risk of developing breast cancer increases by 100%.”
“While you’re sitting there now, your breasts have already changed shape. Within the cells of the breasts themselves, the hormones are preparing,” she added.
The counsellor continued: “When a baby is aborted, because it’s a direct action, it’s not like the baby had died a couple of weeks before, there would be a slowing down in acceleration in the cell activity, this is like ‘boom’ straight in – this causes the tissue in the breasts to counter-act.”
She said the link “makes sense because the body was on full-scale activity, to then a sudden drop in hormones which the breasts react to and fill with cancer”.
The counsellor also told the reporter that abortion could make a woman infertile and could cause future miscarriages, as “in some cases doctors weaken the neck of the womb and it can’t hold the next pregnancy”.
She added: “It just depends on how the abortionist is being with you, and there’s no gentle abortionist, not one. They’re not paid for that.”
The reporter was shown plastic foetuses, displaying the growth of a baby at five weeks, 10 weeks and 12 weeks.
Prof Regan said that Stanton Healthcare’s claims that abortion causes breast cancer were categorically untrue and “downright lies”.
Prof Regan cited an RCOG guideline, published in November 2011, which includes an international study of over 40,000 women with breast cancer, collected from 53 studies worldwide, which found no link between abortion and breast cancer.
Claims about miscarriage and infertility were also untrue because they were based on outdated techniques, she said, while the college also advises that mental health problems are no more likely in women who have abortions than those who continue with a pregnancy.
Prof Regan said: “I would be insulted and offended if someone were to deliberately feed me this information. I am ashamed of those who want to mislead these women in what is a most vulnerable time in their lives.
“People feeding a vulnerable person downright lies I think should be prosecuted. It’s appalling. Often anti-choice groups are fighting out of context and have no regard for scientific evidence.
The reporter was handed leaflets containing further claims of side-effects if a pregnancy were to be terminated.
The literature listed consequences such as death, uterine perforations, cervical lacerations, infection, post-abortion syndrome and suicide.
Prof Regan said that a woman would be more likely to develop a sexually transmitted disease than an infection leading to infertility after an abortion.
“Unfortunately these anti-abortion campaigners behave in what I think is quite a despicable way. Women who are requesting an abortion are usually in a vulnerable state. And to take advantage of a human being who is vulnerable and at risk is shameful… to impose their views on vulnerable women is effectively a form of bullying,” Prof Regan added.
Pro-life campaigners from Precious Life, which is linked to Stanton Healthcare, regularly protest by the doors of Family Planning Association (FPA), Northern Ireland’s only non- directive counselling service for pregnant women. FPA is located just across the road from Stanton Healthcare.
The campaigners often force leaflets containing abortion misinformation into the hands of women seeking information about terminating a pregnancy.
Heather Low, Counselling Services Coordinator for FPA, said: “They stand outside every day and give out false information. They talk to women and try to coerce them into going over to their office. They’re good at duping women into thinking that they’re with us.
“That’s distressing for women who come in for a private conversation with us.”
Clare Bailey, a member of the Green Party of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and a former clinic escort for Marie Stopes Belfast, believes a buffer zone should be put in place around FPA to protect women who wish to access information about the termination of a pregnancy.
She has witnessed women running into oncoming traffic to avoid being harassed.
She said: “Their intent is not to help women. This is a concerted campaign of harassment and intimidation against women on the streets of Belfast.
“It’s a whole shaming campaign, but they call it something else.”
Grainne Teggart, Campaigns Officer for Amnesty International Northern Ireland, believes Stanton Healthcare and Precious Life campaigners are having a “harmful impact” on women trying to access FPA services.
She said: “That is not peaceful protesting that is harassment and intimidation, mainly spearheaded by Precious Life who have the association with Stanton Healthcare across the road.”
Stanton Healthcare said they were unable to comment on the specific exchange but a spokeswoman said: “Many women in Northern Ireland have sought and found invaluable support at Stanton Belfast during their pregnancy and beyond.”
This feature was published in The Times.