Deborah Coughlin | Contributing Writer | Thursday, 11 December 2014

We Spoke To The People Behind The UK's Anti-Abortion Movement

The Debrief: Suddenly abortion protests are on the national agenda here in the UK. But who's behind them? And are they actually making a difference?

According to the Department of Health, 3% of 22-year-old women in the UK had an abortion in 2013. The stats don’t break down their reasons for deciding to terminate a pregnancy, and frankly, it wouldn’t possibly matter why they did. What does matter is that they should have been able to choose what happened to their bodies and when without being harassed, harangued, and forced to look at pictures of aborted foetuses. 

We’re used to seeing abortion protests outside clinics in Middle America, and while they’ve always happened in the UK on a smaller scale, they’re now back on the national agenda. Thanks, in part, to a viral video of a woman challenging pro-lifers as they campaigned outside a Bpas clinic in Blackfriars.

‘It’s great, in terms of exposure,’ Andrew Stephenson, the founder and director of pro-life organisation Abort67,  told The Debrief excitedly. Yes, as far as Abort67 is concerned, the video of a pregnant woman telling their protestors they should be ashamed of themselves is good news. 

The fact is Abort67’s tactics don’t work. They failed in the US and they are failing here too.

Following advice from the American Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (which we’re not linking to here, it’s pretty gruesome stuff), Stephenson has imported the US tactic of using massive blown-up photos of aborted foetuses.

‘Our banners were seen by four million people,’ he tells me. Yes, they were. Millions of views, hundreds of thousands of tweets and yet still his organisation has a mere 159 followers on Twitter. The fact is Abort67’s tactics don’t work. They failed in the US and they are failing here too.

In spite of these organisations, a US Gallup report shows that since the 90s, there’s been a rise in the number of people who want abortion to remain legal. In the UK, a 2013 YouGov report showed that the proportion of people wanting a ban on abortion has fallen from 12% in 2005 to just 7% today.

Stephenson’s organisation has been active for much of this time, so you wouldn’t say they are onto a winner. But still they persist, in the face of almost no active public support or interest. So what can we do about it?

It’s not only YouTube hits propelling this issue into the limelight, it’s the fact that at least 19 charities and institutions have got together to demand a ‘buffer zone’ around clinics to stop these protestors. Back Off is the campaign spearheaded by Bpas and supported by a coalition of organisations, including the British Medical Association, Rape Crisis and Mumsnet.

Earlier this week Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper called on the government to consider the idea.

Before joining the campaign, Mumsnet consulted its members, who then began sharing stories. ‘My friend’s teenage daughter was recently raped and her life threatened by her violent boyfriend,’ said one Mumsnet user. ‘She made the agonising decision to abort the foetus. She was very young, traumatised and then had to endure the hecklers outside the clinic.’

The intimidation outside clinics in Australia has reportedly driven women to self harm. Why are anti-abortion campaigners, pro-lifers, resorting to US tactics which have resulted in the murder of doctors?

‘To us,’ says Bpas Public Policy Manager Abigail Fitzgibbon, ‘this is them accepting they’ve lost the battle in terms of public opinion and that they’ve lost the battle politically, because in general people believe that abortion should be legal and available for women.’

That’s why these organisations are now targeting women individually, on the streets, as they walk into the clinics.

READ MORE: Pro Choice Groups Look For British ‘Buffer Zones’ Outside Abortion Clinics

Stephenson claims Abort67 is just calling for the ‘education’ of women to the realities of abortion and his group has offered Bpas a ‘deal’ that was refused.

‘A group of extremists are trying to force a regulated healthcare charity to give women pictures of aborted foetuses in order to get them to stop harassing and intimidating women – it’s like blackmail,’ Fitzgibbon tells me, adding that the images used weren’t even representative of the foetuses of the majority of women in the UK, who terminate much earlier in development, before 10 weeks.

It’s hard to disagree with the notion that women have all the facts and are well-informed about their own bodies, but wouldn’t it be better to be calling for compulsory fact-based sex education?

‘We explain exactly what happens. Every woman has a scan, if she wants to see her own scan she can take it away with her.’

Their guidelines are written by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. ‘Women aren’t divorced from reality. Many women having abortions in the UK are already mothers. They know that it’s a difficult ethical decision.'

This is where you might start to question Stephenson’s motivations. It’s hard to disagree with the notion that women have all the facts and are well-informed about their own bodies, but wouldn’t it be better to be calling for compulsory fact-based sex education? How is showing someone a picture of an aborted foetus in anyway informative?

I went to a convent school, which had some unusual methods, and our lesson on abortion was conducted by a nun, in a chapel, with projections of foetuses, just like the ones he uses, yet I am pro-choice. I put this to Stephenson. ‘The images don’t work on everyone,’ he said.

Work? If you’re simply trying to educate, you’d be happy with a woman making a decision based on having the information, otherwise you’re just dictating.

Barrister Julian Norman says that this kind of campaigning could be contravening the Public Order Act, which includes behavior that can cause harassment, alarm or distress.

‘It’s not just them exercising their freedom of expression outside parliament, it’s them specifically targeting women who are likely to be caused distress,’ she says, adding that if there is sufficient evidence women should consider taking action in the form of a private prosecution.

Buffer zones would protect women from being targeted individually. Stephenson should be allowed to protest against something he feels is fundamentally wrong, but the place for that in this case is parliament –  and it’s one of the few places that does have a buffer zone. Politicians have the privilege of being safely protected from the kind of harassment Bpas doctors, nurses and the women and men who visit them legally deal with on a daily basis.

Does that seem fair to you? 

Liked this? You might also be interested in: 

Spain’s Anti-Abortion Reforms Have Been Scrapped But Pro Choicers Aren’t Celebrating Yet

It’s Worth Remembering That Women Should Be The Ones Who Get To Decide When It Comes To Abortion 

Northern Ireland’s New Health Minister Opposes Abortion For Raped Women 

Follow Deborah on Twitter @deb_rahcoughlin

Tags: Longish Reads, Abortion