Anti-Abortion Protestors Return to UK Streets for Lent
40 Days For Life will spend Lent protesting at abortion clinics, adding urgency to legal changes to protect women’s reproductive rights, reports Sian Norris
The first day of Lent is, for followers of Christianity, the time to fast leading up to Easter on 4 April.
But, for anti-abortion groups, Lent is the first day of 40 Days For Life, an initiative that was developed by the American anti-abortion movement. As part of it, protestors gather outside reproductive health clinics with posters and banners, causing upset and distress to women and workers.
This year, 40 Days for Life will target 14 clinics across the UK – including in London, Glasgow, Reading, Cardiff, Bournemouth, Brighton and Manchester. All but three of the clinics are run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which says that in 2019 100,000 women were targeted by protestors while trying to access reproductive healthcare.
BPAS has said that “the tactics used by these protestors may not be violent, but they’re not peaceful. Women and healthcare professionals are often left alarmed and distressed by what happens at the clinic gate”.
40 Days For Life was set up in the US in 2007 and now operates in 63 countries. It aims to “continue until every abortion centre goes out of business for good”. Its London-based director of international campaigns, Robert Colquhoun, is also a director of the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, which hit the headlines in 2019 when it targeted Labour MP Stella Creasy with a graphic anti-abortion billboard campaign.
Women attending appointments at the MSI Reproductive Choices UK Centre in Ealing won’t have to run a gauntlet of anti-abortion protestors. Earlier this month, Ealing Council decided to keep a ‘buffer zone’ protecting the clinic.
A Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), which was due to expire in April, has been extended until 2024. The PSPO protects the clinic from protestors so that women can attend appointments without having to walk past activists from organisations such as 40 Days For Life and CBR UK, which proudly display graphic imagery showing the ‘truth’ of abortion.
In August 2019, CBR UK activist Christian Hacking was arrested in Ealing for violating the PSPO, although charges were never brought as the officer failed to caution him before his arrest.
However, while Ealing’s clinic is protected by a buffer zone, the Government has so far chosen not to extend these protections nationwide.
In 2018, then Home Secretary Sajid Javid rejected calls to implement buffer zones for abortion clinics across the UK, saying that it “would not be a proportionate response”.
He is supported in this view by the Conservative MP for Congleton, Fiona Bruce, who has introduced a number of unsuccessful Bills to try to restrict access to safe and legal abortion in the UK. Most recently, Bruce proposed changing the law to remove cleft palate or clubbed foot as “qualifying physical abnormalities for the purposes of medical termination of pregnancy”.
In a speech in the House of Commons last summer, Bruce criticised the Ealing PSPO, saying that it had a “potentially damaging impact on free speech” and that a law in favour of buffer zones would be a “drastic overreaction” that could “damage… the more widely held freedom of speech in this country”.
This view is supported by organisations including Liberty, Big Brother Watch and Index on Censorship. The LGBTIQ activist Peter Tatchell also opposes buffer zones, telling ConservativeHome that they “go against what a free and democratic society is supposed to be all about”.
However, BPAS points out that women have rights too – the right to attend a healthcare appointment free from harassment. It has said that women “deserve access to basic healthcare without the fear of being harassed or frightened by these groups”.
Fiona Bruce has links to the US religious freedom giant Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which campaigned against buffer zones in America.
In April 2019, Bruce spoke at ADF International’s youth conference in Vienna. It paid for her accommodation and flights, totalling £927.
ADF successfully intervened in the 2014 McCullen v Coakley case which led to the Supreme Court striking down a Massachusetts law that had created a 35-foot buffer zone around a clinic. It argued that the zone was unconstitutional in how it “intended to ban virtually all citizens from engaging in fundamental rights and liberties” by denying “pro-life advocates” the chance “to peacefully provide information on abortion alternatives”.
The marked zone, it wrote, “entirely forecloses” one of the plaintiff’s “ability to leaflet unwilling and even willing recipients. It also prevents her from speaking to clients in a normal conversational tone”.
It also objected to the buffer zones on the grounds that “some people may have difficulty reading signs or hearing clearly from 35 feet away or less” – a suggestion that buffer zones are succeeding in their mission.
ADF International has now turned its attention to buffer zones in the UK. Its London office – which has an the income of just over half a million, according to its most recent accounts – has expressed support for Alina Dulgheriu, a mother who has unsuccessfully tried to overturn the PSPO protecting the Ealing clinic. Dulgheriu says that talking to a protestor outside the clinic led to her choosing to continue her pregnancy.
Dulgheriu’s case against buffer zones have been rejected by the UK courts. ADF International wrote last May that an application to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights would be “filed in the coming months”.
Wider Legal Battles
Last March, the Government announced that it would temporarily allow women to access telemedicine so that they could have a medical abortion at home – a move that was designed to relieve pressure on the NHS during the Coronavirus pandemic.
The 1967 Abortion Act states that women can access an abortion if two doctors affirm that continuing the pregnancy would harm her physical or mental health, and that the abortion must take place on registered medical premises.
The latter clause was designed to stop backstreet abortions that led to complications and deaths. However, today the majority of abortions are ‘medical abortions’ – whereby a woman takes two pills to induce a miscarriage – rather than surgical abortions which must, for obvious reasons, take place in a clinic or hospital. Medical abortions can be safely done in a woman’s own home.
A consultation is now underway to make this temporary arrangement more permanent and to end the legal exception that demands women take abortion pills in a clinical setting.
According to BPAS, “over 50,000 women have been able to avoid attending a clinic since the temporary introduction of telemedical abortion care in March 2020”. Research published today by MSI Reproductive Choices UK shows that abortion at home is the preferred choice for eight out of 10 women in the UK. It argues that the law must be updated to protect “women from protestors, allowing them to end their pregnancies from the safety and privacy of their own homes”.
Another legal battle is brewing in Northern Ireland, where abortion remained illegal until last year. The Democratic Unionist Party is now attempting to update the recent law and ban abortions in cases of foetal defect. Currently there is no upper time limit for abortions when there is a “substantial risk” of severe mental or physical impairment. However, a Private Members Bill is seeking to overturn the law.
The change would follow the lead of Poland’s far-right Government, which last month removed the legal exception that allowed abortion in cases of foetal defect – although Poland’s abortion ban is much more draconian and only allows terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, threat to the mother’s life, and cases of rape or incest.
Meanwhile, pro-choice MPs in Westminster and campaigners continue to call for decriminalisation of abortion across the UK.