Friday 23 March 2007

Hot Press interview on rogue agency


Claiming to offer impartial family planning advice, rogue pregnancy information centres are pushing a pro-life slant. WORDS Daniel Finn

Fifteen years after the X case, Irish women are still being denied access to information about abortion. Now a group of pro-choice activists have launched a campaign against so-called "rogue" pregnancy information centres. They have highlighted an alarming pattern of distortion and manipulation by agencies offering advice to vulnerable young women.

"These agencies are rogue because they seem to be offering all the options, they're very much projecting an image of being pro-choice, you're going to be drawn to them if you're considering abortion as an option," argues psychologist Sinead Ahern, one of the organisers of the campaign. "They don't say explicitly that they think abortion is a bad thing and they disapprove of it, but they manipulate women into thinking abortion is bad and try to manipulate them out of making a choice to have an abortion, rather than giving them the facts of the matter."

The activists have targeted the self-styled Women's Resource Centre, a clinic based on Dorset Street in north Dublin. The centre has the largest advertisement in the "family planning" section of the Golden Pages (dwarfing the IFPA's ad), under the name A Choice for Women. The ad promises "all options". It also mentions links between the centre and other clinics in London, Liverpool and Manchester.

"We found the names of two alleged rogue agencies, A Choice for Women and the British Alternatives Pregnancy Services," says Sinead Ahern. "When women from our group phoned up the two numbers, we realised that they were both directing people to the same place on Dorset Street." The two agencies are the only ones in the phonebook that don't give an address. A number of women involved in the pro-choice group made appointments with the Women's Resource Centre, saying that they were pregnant. Sinead describes their experiences as "disturbing".

"They give false medical information and manipulate women through fear," she insists. "Any counselling agency will tell you its aim has to be to empower women and guide them to making a choice for themselves. There's nothing more disempowering for women than giving them false information and that's what this agency does."

One of the women who went to the Dorset Street clinic made a recording of her one-hour session with the agency's counsellor, a copy of which has been given to HOT PRESS. She was repeatedly told that she would place herself at risk of contracting breast cancer if she went ahead with any decision to have an abortion. "The risk of breast cancer almost doubles after one abortion," she was told... "Your risk of breast cancer rises significantly.. . every woman who has an abortion her risk of breast cancer rises... you're the one that's going to have to go away and get up in the stirrups and risk breast cancer which is already in your family." Finally she was assured that "if you decide to continue with the pregnancy you'll have protected yourself for life from breast cancer."


She was also given an information sheet, which described psychological effects of abortion, including "suicidal impulses", "preoccupation with death", "inability to forgive self" and "feeling of dehumanization". Although the literature states that women who have had abortions experience "thwarted maternal instincts" and "intense interest in babies", it also claims that they are much more likely to abuse any future children they may have - a suggestion that is entirely without foundation in experience or research. Another sheet which makes a completely fictitious link between abortion and breast cancer concludes: "The saying 'God always forgives, man sometimes forgives, nature never forgives' may be a good example in this case."

The agency behind the Dorset St. clinic has used several different names in the past. Between 1995 and 1999, it operated as the Aadam's agency, which also had a large ad in the Golden Pages giving readers the impression that it offered abortion information. The Aadam's agency was forced to shut down after a High Court ruling that its founder had unlawful custody of a young mother's child. But it soon resurfaced as the Women's Counselling Network, and later Alpha. The Alpha name was ditched after a radio documentary by a Newstalk journalist exposed its practices. The journalist recorded the advice she was given by the agency's counsellor, after making an appointment.

While the name may have changed, it appears that the nature of the clinic has not. The evidence of the radio documentary is almost identical to the recording made last month and given to HOTPRESS. The same woman asked the same questions and gave the same advice in almost every detail - often repeating her lines word-for-word. Some figures associated with the clinic have been politically active on the Irish religious right-wing. Eamon Murphy, named by the Examiner as the head of the Aadam's centre, ran for the Euro Parliament in 1994 and 1999 as a radical anti-abortion candidate. Michael Larkin stood as a candidate for the Christian Solidarity Party in 2002 in both Dublin and Tipperary. The Dorset St. clinic's owner is registered as Michael O'Lorchain.

Sinead Ahern wants the government to intervene and regulate the agencies offering advice to pregnant women. "One step that could be taken would be to strictly regulate the people who call themselves counsellors," she argues. "People working in this clinic present themselves as qualified professionals, but what right do they actually have to be giving pregnant women advice? A code of practice for counsellors could make a big difference."

The campaigners are planning to highlight other "rogue" centres they believe to be operating in Cork and Limerick. "There's such a stigma attached to crisis pregnancy in Ireland that a lot of women find themselves alone in that position and find that they can't talk to friends and families," says Ahern. "So agencies are very much a last port of call for women, and they especially tend to be the only port of call for a particularly vulnerable type of woman. Those are the people who need fair, objective advice more than anyone – but these rogue centres prey on their vulnerability."

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