There’s a dangerous elephant in the room. Let’s worry about stickers.

In three years Peter Throp has spent over 2,600 hours outside Marie Stopes's Cape Town clinic where he prays for mothers, unborn children and the staff providing family planning services, including safe legal abortions. He is dedicating his life to campaigning against both legal and illegal abortion, both of which he considers evil. As someone who believes all women have the right to access safe and legal abortion I wasn't sure how our meeting would go. However, after Peter and his wife Terry welcomed me into their home, I left thinking that despite our opposing viewpoints on many women's rights issues, his impact could be positive. Here's why.

Two years ago he began removing thousands of posters advertising illegal and dangerous backstreet abortions from Cape Town streets, only for them to be quickly replaced. Peter then believes God came to him and asked him "to build a million crosses". To undertake this he started producing stickers, bearing a cross, with the message "abortion is evil". The stickers are used to cover up the posters advertising back street abortions. In December 2012 Peter was convicted of disfiguring and damaging road signs, he has appealed but could face prison.

The City of Cape Town's case was that it's an offence under an advertising by-law to damage or disfigure street signs. Peter's case was that he hadn't damaged or disfigured the signs but rather the posters advertising illegal abortions which were themselves illegally on the signs. I spent a decade practising law and my mind wandered "If the offence is about damaging a sign perhaps he's OK. If the offence is about adhering something to a sign he probably isn't - a sticker is on a sign even if there’s a poster between .…". I then remembered why I left law. Far more important than the interpretation of an advertising by-law is that back street abortions are leading to the death and serious illness of many women, the authorities aren't doing anything about it and we're worrying about a law on stickers. I made a conscious decision to not bother looking up the by-law to find out the correct answer.

Given those providing back street abortions advertise their phone numbers it seems like a pretty good starting point for the police to find them. I called "Dr" Hakim whose adverts claim he provides "Safe & Pain Free" abortion "from R300". That's around US$30 or £20. He asked me "Who do you want the abortion for? Is it your wife you want to send me or a child?" I pretended to be married and said it was my wife. Despite repeatedly asking he wouldn't give me an address for me to drive to, instead saying I had to tell him where we were and he'd send someone to collect us. I didn't arrange a pick up. R300 sounds cheap but cost is not the sole driver of demand for back street abortions. The fear of stigma, lack of facilities and even the negative attitude of some healthcare workers are other barriers to approaching legal clinics. Many women are not even aware that abortion was legalised in South Africa in 1997.

Value Life stickers over the abortion (and other) posters

Peter says he'll go all the way to the Constitutional Court if necessary. I believe him. He also tells me that he's repeatedly tried to have the problem prioritised by Mayor of Cape Town Patricia de Lille but that the Mayor has never responded. In March 2012, a few days after the death of a 20 year old student from what is suspected to have been a back street abortion, a police spokesperson told the Mail & Guardian newspaper that advertising back street abortions was like "selling a car" and a matter for the Advertising Standards Authority. The authorities are now spending more time and money on removing the posters but there appears to be no will power on the part of any official government body to tackle the more important issue of the illegal dangerous abortions themselves.

I sincerely hope Peter does not end up in prison, although I'm sure he'd think it God's plan if he did. Educating women of their rights, dealing with the lack of facilities, addressing stigma and the attitude of some health workers all need prioritising before we worry about stickers. Nothing indicates the authorities are re-evaluating their priorities whilst Peter waits for his appeal date and little appears in the media about the real issue. We might have vastly different viewpoints on legal abortion, but Peter's determination and principles might help highlight the need of authorities to act against illegal abortion. It's shocking to think that one way to get authorities to address the horror of back street abortions would be public outrage at a devout Catholic pensioner being sent to prison for putting up some stickers.