US-style anti-choice tactics have crossed the pond this month as part of a religious initiative to picket abortion clinics.
For the first time, protesters have been targeting a UK clinic – Marie Stopes House in central London, which was one of the country’s first abortion clinics. Reports have suggested that women entering the clinic have been ‘harassed’ and given leaflets containing dubious information – such as the unfounded claim that women who have had abortions have an increased risk of breast cancer. Staff at the centre also claim that they are being filmed walking in to work, which has raised worries that the actions of the protesters are mirroring those of the more extreme anti-choice activists in the US.
The protests are being run by 40 Days For Life, an organisation which formed in Texas in 2004 and since 2007 has run yearly 40-day campaigns of prayer, vigils and pickets at abortion clinics in locations all over the US. This year’s campaign is also taking place at various locations in Canada, Australia, Denmark, England and Northern Ireland. According to the organisation’s website:
“40 Days for Life takes a determined, peaceful approach to showing local communities the consequences of abortion in their own neighbourhoods, for their own friends and families.”
The London protest boasts an army of 500 mostly Catholic volunteers who are keeping the vigil going for 12 hours each day.
The past two years have seen the anti-choice movement in the UK take things up a notch and make efforts to reduce the cut-off limit for abortions. Although Parliament eventually voted against lowering the limit in 2008, now-prominent members of the government such as David Cameron and William Hague had voted to reduce the cut-off to 22 weeks. Some MPs voted for cut-off point as low as 12 weeks.
And more recently, an early day motion has been tabled which would require women seeking an abortion on mental health grounds to have counselling and assessments and be warned of the consequences of what they are about to do.
Although the 40 Days For Life initiative is supposedly peaceful it marks another shift in the way anti-choice activists are operating here. We’ve had the misleading leaflets and videos that use inaccurate science and shaming tactics already – now come the pickets, which could prove extremely upsetting for women who might have already had to make some really difficult choices and may not be in the best state of mind.
Just this week, an American father has achieved notoriety by filming the way his wife was treated by protesters as she entered a clinic, then berating the activists himself. Aaron Gouveia and his wife were on their way to end her pregnancy of 16 weeks, having discovered their baby was suffering from a congenital condition, was missing internal organs and had zero chance of survival.
The video he recorded on his phone has been featured on several major news sites and has proved that some anti-choice activists are happy to terrorise women no matter what their circumstances may be.
Of course it’s not just their attitude towards patients which could be a problem. As we all know, this movement which supposedly believes in the sanctity of life hasn’t done a very good job of demonstrating this with regard to healthcare professionals over the last few decades.
National Abortion Federation statistics show that since 1977, anti-choice activists have been responsible for eight murders, 17 attempted murders, 383 death threats, 153 incidents of assault or battery, and 3 kidnappings committed against abortion providers.
In addition, there have been 41 bombings of clinics, 173 arsons, 91 attempted bombings or arsons, 619 bomb threats, 1630 incidents of trespassing and 1264 incidents of vandalism.
Many anti-abortion groups remain committed to peaceful activism only but Abortion Rights UK has already noted a surge in protests recently – this could help to pave the way for extremism and more violent actions.
In the next few months we’re likely to see the government focused mostly solving the country’s economic issues. Whatever is on the MPs’ agenda, it’s important for us not to forget that a core of people and organisations committed to limiting a woman’s right to choose is growing - and that they’re continuing to pose a threat, even as women continue to fight for safe access to terminations in Northern Ireland and we hear more shocking accounts of backstreet abortions there.
With many more prominent members of the new government holding socially conservative views, it’s definitely going to be an issue to watch closely in the near future.
Image via internets_dairy's Flickr