For 30 years, Graham Preston has been standing on the footpaths outside abortion clinics in Queensland with an enlarged photo of an unborn, unharmed baby and another sign that says we were all once unborn babies. At 61 years old, it’s become his life’s work to, as he says, “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.” And it certainly hasn’t made him popular.
Since 2002 he’s also been staging sit-ins in the doorways of the five abortion clinics in Brisbane. He has spent time in jail, including an 8-month stint in 2012 after refusing to pay a series of fines racked up from his protests outside QLD abortion clinics.
Late last month, Graham was fined $3000 by a Tasmanian magistrate for protesting outside a Hobart abortion clinic in the first conviction under the state’s new laws protecting abortion clinics from protestors.
Eternity spoke with Graham to ask whether his efforts for those 30 years have been worth it.
I go mainly for three reasons. The first is to offer help to people going in. Secondly, I believe that it’s important for the passing world to see that this place does abortions. So I do hold signs. And also I believe it’s important to be there for the benefit of the staff, to challenge them on what they’re doing and have somebody there to remind them that what they’re doing is wrong.
“… if you persist in doing this, you’re going to end up in jail and potentially lose your possessions.”
During the time that we’ve been at the clinics and involved in pro-life activism, things have really all gone the wrong way. When we (my wife and I) started 30 years ago there were only two abortion clinics here in QLD. Now there are about 15. The numbers of abortions have doubled and, most obviously, the attitude of the community has changed.
It’s a very small group of us. In terms of going outside the clinics on the footpaths, there are a few other people who do that. But in terms of the sit-ins, it’s an even smaller group and, sad to say, often I’ve been engaging in sit-ins (blocking the doors of abortion clinics) on my own. The most we’ve ever had is four people.
Why aren’t more people joining you? There are plenty of Christians who would consider themselves pro-life …
“I encouraged them to be prepared to challenge this law – it’s such an egregious suppression of free speech.”
I think, to me, it’s fairly obvious why. The price is just too high. I mean, I’ve been in jail a half dozen times over this. So if you persist in doing this, you’re going to end up in jail and potentially lose your possessions.
My wife and I made the decisions a while ago not to own any assets, otherwise we would have lost them if we had them. It is a costly route to take. But we weighed it up against what we believe is happening: potentially up to 100,000 human lives a year taken in this country. And as a community, a Christian community, we have lived with that and accepted that and we turn a blind eye to it.
Exclusion zones have been put in place around abortion clinics in Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT that prevent protests. There’s also a recent push for similar laws NSW. Yet despite those zones, you continue to protest. In fact, a magistrate in Hobart ruled that you deliberately went to Hobart to defy the state’s laws. Was that why you went to Hobart?
My wife is from Tasmania, and we were there to see her family in 2013 and we were talking to local pro-lifers about their response to the new laws and I encouraged them to be prepared to challenge this law – it’s such an egregious suppression of free speech. The Tasmanian law was the first one like this, before VIC and the ACT had theirs.
As the time approached, I got a call to ask that if only a few other people were going to come along, would I still come? Yes, I would. And a few weeks after that, another call to ask, if nobody else comes along, will you still come? And I said, yes I will. As it turned out nobody from Tasmania was there for that first protest in 2014. I was arrested then. There were two abortion clinics in Hobart and I went to both of them on subsequent days. That court case was due in September 2014 but when I got to court the police offered no evidence against me and the charges were dropped. So I went back outside the one abortion clinic left in Hobart (the other had closed). And I went back to Queensland.
But because the law was still there, I decided I would have to go back. So I went back in April 2015. This time there were two Tasmanians who protested with me, a couple who joined after they’d heard me on the radio. We got arrested again and this time the court case went ahead.
Aren’t you – by asserting this right to free speech – being unloving to the women entering these abortion clinics who are going through something difficult already?
I find the argument put by those who oppose us very interesting. They can’t have it both ways. On the one hand, they want to say that having an abortion is no big deal; it’s just getting rid of the products of conception and so and therefore anybody should be able to do it without being challenged on it. But they also want to say it’s one of the most difficult decisions a woman has to make in her life, and these sorts of things.
It can’t be both nothing and a huge thing at the same time.
“To me, it is a reflection that as much as Christians would want to say that abortion is wrong, we don’t really believe it. We say it. We want to think we believe it, but our actions show that we don’t really believe it at all.”
The fact is that many women say that they don’t want to have abortions, that they were pushed into it or felt they didn’t have any support. And we believe that somebody should be there to say we will be there and we will support you.
My wife and I set up a crisis pregnancy support centre in Queensland that continues to run and we provide that practical support and counsel to people in difficulty due to unexpected pregnancy.
I have, in my time at Eternity, spoken to other people who’ve set up support centres for women considering an abortion but who would disagree with the idea of protesting or being outside an abortion clinic.
I think it’s fair enough to say that we want to be compassionate and we don’t want to upset people. But at the same time, we must always keep in mind what we believe to be going on here. Do we believe that every time a woman goes in to have an abortion, a child is killed or not?
If there were centres where people could take a child up to two years old and have them killed, and that was made legal, and people said you shouldn’t be able to speak out against it, would Christians really say we should just stand aside and let it happen?
To me, it is a reflection that as much as Christians would want to say that abortion is wrong, we don’t really believe it. We say it. We want to think we believe it, but our actions show that we don’t really believe it at all. Because if we did believe it, I would think we’d be taking more direct action to see it stopped.
So should everyone be doing what you’re doing?
On the one hand, I want to say yes. But I do recognise that there is a very high cost that would come if the Christian church as a whole were to take this seriously, in terms of the cost to other ministry. I wouldn’t want to have a situation where the church couldn’t do any other ministry because it’s been crushed because of its opposition to abortion.
“I believe that instead of just a handful of people willing to take an uncompromising stance on this, there should be many, many more, and the Church should be willing to back them.”
But at the same time – I think we need to ask the question: “Does it matter or not that thousands of children are killed each year in this country? And is it worth it for us as Christians to pay a high price to speak out against that?” I believe that instead of just a handful of people willing to take an uncompromising stance on this, there should be many, many more, and the Church should be willing to back them.
Do you think the tide will turn on abortion in Australia? Will what you’re doing change anything?
There is no reason to think the tide is going to change with what is the present approach. But I think that it is only when our actions fit with what we are saying that people will take us seriously.
“… even if no child has ever been saved by us sitting in on an abortion clinic, it is still right to act in that way.”
When the average non-Christian thinks about this issue, they would think to themselves that if anybody thought that the unborn child is valuable it would be Christians because they believe that God creates human life and so on. But then they look at the silence of the church on this and think, it can’t be such a big deal because Christians don’t seem to care much about it. It allows people to think that it really doesn’t matter.
Do you think you’ve personally changed anyone’s mind?
Last time I went to jail, I received three emails from women – different women – who said to us that we wish I had been there on the day that they’d gone and had an abortion, because they’re now regretting what they’ve done. They volunteered that themselves.
The way I look at it is that when we do the sit-ins, there’s no doubt that they’re traumatic for everyone involved. It’s never easy to know whether anybody has changed their minds or not. But if we were walking down the street and we saw a child in trouble and tried to intervene, but the child still died, would we then say that that was a waste of time? I don’t think so. We tried. And it was right to try and help them.
So even if no child has ever been saved by us sitting in on an abortion clinic, it is still right to act in that way. We ought to try and help those who cannot defend themselves.
Graham Preston and the Tasmanian couple also arrested with him in Hobart in 2015 are crowdfunding for their legal costs as they seek to challenge the exclusion zone laws in the High Court.More