The pro-life struggle is entering a new, more confrontational phase, Jim Dowson tells Luke Coppen Six years ago abortion meant as much to Jim Dowson as "the price of yak cheese
in Outer Mongolia". Today he is the most prominent pro-life activist in Britain — a man feared and feted for his determination to rattle the conscience of the nation over abortion. But back in the summer of 1997, he was only dimly aware of the cause that would dominate his life.
His road to Damascus was a Belfast street where a motley array of Christians had gathered to oppose a gay rights rally. He noticed a stall covered in what appeared to be photographs of bomb victims. The twisted and bloodied infant limbs reminded him of the day the Shankhill bomb went off, filling the streets with dismembered bodies.
"I was looking at it and it just unscrambled in front of my eyes," he recalls. "And I realised that this was aborted babies. It was one of the biggest shocks I've ever had in my life. It was horrendous, horrifying."
When he got home, Dowson discovered a small polythene bag in his pocket containing pictures from the stall. The bag lay unopened for a month before he and his wife decided they had to face the images.
"We made sure all the kids were out of the room, then we sat looking at the pictures for hours and hours. It just broke our hearts. We could not believe this was happening ... That was the defining moment in my life."
Dowson has travelled a long way since that moment. Over the past six years, he has founded a national prolife movement, courted arrest outside abortion clinics, scuffled with the hard Left, been branded a terrorist and
faced death threats. Journalists have devoted forests of paper to his activities. The picture that emerges from their reports is of a dour, fanatical and dangerous man who will stop at nothing to expose the injustice of abortion.
The Jim Dowson that arrives at The Catholic Herald offices is a different character. Funny and affable, he cuts a short, energetic figure, clad in a dark suit and a
white shirt, embroidered with the UK Life League logo (made, he boasts, for £5 in a Glasgow backstreet). He peers out through letter box spectacles, gleefully waving a book, The Bible and Birth Control, which he says has been upsetting Protestants with its insistence on the immorality of contraception. Controversy, clearly, is not just his job, but also his hobby.
It is just as well he enjoys it, because since October 1999 he has never been far away from rancour. In that month, he, and a small group of like-minded people, set up Precious Life Scotland, with the aim of upsetting the abortion status quo. The group, which began with £73 in the bank. swiftly spread over the border and evolved into the UK Life League.
"The biggest driving force for us starting the UK Life League was to break the chains of respectability," Dowson explains in his gruff Mid-Lanarkshire accent. "We wanted to break out of the corral that we'd got ourselves in — frightened to show pictures, even frightened to use the word murder. To be honest, a lot of these chains were self-imposed, but nevertheless they had to he broken."
The biggest obstacle the group faced was Scotland's liberal media. In order to make an impact, Precious Life needed a frontman who could stand up to the withering media assault and still drive the message home. Dowson, then a sales manager at a paper manufacturing company. accepted the role. Looking back, he thinks he was seeking a catharsis for past sins, "a bit of selfinduced earthly purgatory".
"The press went mad," he says. "I've been accused of being in Loyalist terrorism, Italian fascist terrorism, IRA, Continuity IRA. Knights of St Columbus, the Masons, Opus Dei, Orange Lodge and the Society of Pope Pius X."
From the outset Dowson decided not to waste time defending his name.
"I took the view that I don't have a reputation. God had given me this task to do, and would it be right to waste time and resources defending my own personal name, which really meant nothing in the scheme of things?"
In December 1999, Precious Life became embroiled in an extraordinary dispute involving Scotland's health minister Susan Deacon. Several newspapers carried claims that Miss Deacon had received death threats from "militant anti-abortion campaigners" over her plan to give contraceptives to teenage girls. It quickly emerged that an aide to the First Minister Donald Dewar had invented the story.
The incident was a public relations coup for Precious Life, but the press continued to hound Dowson. Others also had him in their sights. Special Branch warned Dowson it had received death threats against him from shadowy anarchist and Marxist groups. The threats continue to hang over him.
"It does get to you sometimes," he shrugs. "You do suffer from fear. You suffer from insecurity. You do lie awake at night listening for the wee noises outside. I'm not a particularly brave person, but I think God picks his people wisely. Coming from the west of Scotland, I'm perhaps a wee bit more robust than some."
Jim Dowson was born in the mining town of Airdrie in 1964. His parents — "hardworking, good, God-fearing people" raised their five
children in the Congregationalist tradition. But Dowson left the church in his teens and embraced "the world of nightclubs and drinking". He admits to "some brushes with authorityand being "no stranger to the odd punch-up on Saturday night". But this, he argues plausibly, was normal teenage behaviour in west Scotland.
More controversially, Dowson was involved in a Protestant marching band. He insists that playing the flute did not mean he was a supporter of loyalist terrorism in Northern Ireland.
"In Scotland probably 20 per cent of all Catholics and Protestants would be in flute bands," he says. "Though, of course, not in the same bands."
Dowson's first job was as an apprentice mechanic, hut the death of his father inspired him to take a different path "When he died I realised that you need to do something with your life. He was only 53 when he died and it struck me that you have to make every day count. I think that's where I get my intensity. I'm a very intense person."
Dawson moved into retail sales, and in 1988 married his childhood sweetheart, who soon gave birth to the first of three children. The family moved to Northern Ireland, where they were caught up in the sectarian violence of the early Nineties.
"That was a really rough time in my life," Dowson remembers. "There was a couple of years when it was really bad, really intense, really indulging far too much in alcohol abuse, because you really can't deal with the whole thing."
One day, he bought a second-hand Bible and began to wonder whether Christianity was true after all.
"I was sitting one day looking at the fields and the sky. It was an April day, and I suddenly discovered that there is a God. Which was really bad news for me, because if God existed and the Bible was true that meant that I was in serious bother. That's a horrible thing. So even more drinking, even more escapism followed very quickly."
Dowson began to visit churches for guidance on how to become a Christian.
"They didn't have a clue. They didn't have a notion. I had all churches Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic I didn't find one man that could really point me in any direction. It was like Christianity was alien to them."
Eventually he met the Ulster preacher Rev Stephen Hamilton, "a hellfire and brimstone type", who showed Dowson what he had to do to be saved.
"He showed me the law of God and how far short I was from ever achieving it. It was a very painful experience. There were a lot of tears and a lot of repentance, a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth."
stablished pro-life groups have, generally, not welcomed Jim Dowson's appearance on the pro-life scene. Both publicly and privately they have expressed serious reservations over UK Life League's in-your-face app-roach. Some campaigners fear Dowson's zeal will one day tip over into violence. Other believe his activities make it even harder to convince a hardened, secular public of the sanctity of life.
Dowson says, diplomatically, that he admires the work of Life and SPUC and most other pro-life groups, even though he disagrees with them on tactics.
"I think they've shown remarkable resilience and courage in the face of 35 years of shouting in the wilderness," he says. "But I think we are entering a new phase. Over the next few years, the pro-life movement is going to be a completely different kettle of fish. There'll be a lot more arrests. There'll be Draconian measures put upon us. And I just pray to God that people have got the grace to rise to the challenge and stick to their principles."
-Altogether less diplomatically, a week after our interview UK Life League attacked Nuala Scarisbrick, a trustee of Life, after she conimented on European Union proposals to monitor the activities of pro-life groups. She detects an unchristian harshness in the group's words and actions.
"The violence of their imagery does make me wonder what's motivating them," she says. "l'm worried about the tactic of standing outside abortion clinics, because it is counterproductive and intimidating." Jim Dowson wonders aloud whether criticism of UK Life League is rooted in a "south of England snobbery". Perhaps, he says, southern pro-lifers feel their movement has been hijacked by a group of "comprehensive school-educated hairy jocks".
"I think we make folk feel desperately uncomfortable. What you see is what you get with us. We're raw. We're a young group. Most of us are from the working class streets of British cities. We don't possess a lot of patience for apologists. We're perhaps not well brushed up in social graces and etiquette. We really do try and get a mindset like Britain in 1941."
John Smeaton, national director of SPUC, agrees with Dowson that the pro-life movement must enter a new era if it is win the hearts of the minds of the British public. But he insists the new era should not be a "new phase of confrontation".
"Sometimes one looks at another organisation, like UK Life League and asks: 'Is this the right way to change hearts and minds?" he explains. "However, all prolife groups need to revise their strategies."
Josephine Quintavalle. who describes UK Life League as "the brashest face" of the British pro-life struggle, cautiously welcomes Dowson's efforts to import the lessons of America's nonviolent pro-life movement.
"Only a handful of people are facing the reality of abortion, and trying to do something about it. UK Life League has got to be credited with courage and a certain degree of heroism," she says. "I think they'd benefit from better art direction. But what are we supposed to do, sanitise abortion, make it look pretty?"
Dowson says he is "grieved terribly" by internecine fighting in the pro-life movement, but he is confident other groups will eventually follow UK Life League's lead.
"The whole pro-life movement has moved forward. In the last three years, we've had mainstream pro-life leaders threatening to go to prison. We have mainstream people now taking pictures to the streets, outside Westminster. People have been arrested for showing pictures. So I think the prolife movement has really been invigorated."
The UK Life League's mil itancy will continue to grab headlines, but its seems unlikely the organisation will ever develop into a broad, populist movement. Recently Dowson decided the group would campaign against contraception as vigorously as it does against abortion. The group's Protestant support base plummeted.
`G od will not
honour this whole move ment unless
`G od will not
honour this whole move ment unless
people start being involved in talking against contraception," he explains. "Your donor base
will go down substantially. We had 8,000 Protestants on our database last year. That's gone down to about 600 because we nailed our colours to the mast."
To some such pronouncements betray a certain recklessness. To others they represent a bold stand against a corrupt and degenerate society. But both critics and supporters of UK Life League agree that Dowson is a man absolutely committed to the pro-life cause. He acts with the conviction of someone who believes he is in engaged in a life-and-death struggle against "the forces of darkness". He cites the case of an abortion doctor in Liverpool who allegedly held his bloodied hands out a hospital window and called out to pro-lifers: "Here's one b****** you didn't save."
"I don't want to be like the foolish virgins and be caught off-guard," Dowson says quietly.
"I don't want my Lord to return here and find me sitting in an office thinking it's half-past four I better go home now. I don't want to be found doing that. I want to be found outside the clinic and on my knees in prayer trying to intervene to stop this thing."