Illustration by Stephani Von Reiswitz

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

It’s early on a Saturday morning and a building in a leafy part of west London has been surrounded. A group, mostly men over 40, stand and pray. Scattered on the pavement are A4 pieces of paper showing photos of babies and slogans such as “fathers’ rights matter!”, laminated to protect them from the rain. A man approaches a woman who walks to the door of the building, an abortion clinic, and hands her a leaflet that says, “Please choose Life for your baby!” A few metres away stand another group, this one mostly women in their 20s. They hold banners saying, “Her body, her choice” and rouse honks from passing cars.

It’s a scene that has become increasingly common in Britain over the last four years. Women accessing abortion clinics are being stopped and asked about their personal choices by strangers. They’re being filmed as they walk in to clinics and shown graphic images of foetuses. Some are being given incorrect information: that abortion leads to infertility and suicide, or – as one of the men outside the clinic in west London said to me – that abortion can cause breast cancer. (Scientists are clear that it can’t.)

This rise in anti-abortion activity does not reflect a change in opinion; it stands in direct contradiction to polls. According to the British Social Attitudes survey the public is increasingly supportive of abortion, with 90 per cent of people believing a woman should have access to a termination if her health is seriously endangered and 61 per cent if she decides she does not wish to have a child. So why, as we approach the 50th anniversary of abortion being legal in mainland Britain, is this happening at all?

Ever since the 1967 Abortion Act there have been pockets of resistance to abortion, with groups such as the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children lobbying to change the law. There is a relationship between religious belief and attitude towards abortion – the BSA survey suggests that 39 per cent of Catholics support a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy if she wishes to, compared to 56 per cent of Anglicans and 73 per cent of non-religious people. But since we’re becoming progressively less religious as a nation – the 2011 census suggests that “no religion” is a quickly growing belief group – and support for abortion rights is growing among the religious too, this doesn’t help explain the recent rise in anti-choice activism. What has changed in the last few years is the relationship between the anti-abortion movements in the UK and the US.

Kerry Able is Chair of Abortion Rights, an organisation that campaigns for access to abortion. She points to the “Americanisation” of anti-abortion tactics. The activity we’re seeing here has a precedent in the US, and the rise in protests outside clinics in the UK coincides with the establishment of new anti-abortion organisations that have connections to American groups.

One of the organisations that holds “vigils” outside clinics is 40 Days for Life. They try to have a constant presence for the 40 days of Lent, and for a second lot of 40 days in the autumn. Each local group chooses a clinic to target. They were founded in Texas, and now have 203 groups in the USA and 22 in other countries, including seven in the UK: in Cardiff, Glasgow, Hallam, Leamington Spa, Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham.

Birmingham is also host to an annual high-profile anti-abortion event that first took place in 2013. Campaigners from various groups march through the city holding anti-abortion placards.

The event, called March 4 Life, was first held in the US in 1974 in reaction to Roe v Wade, the court case that effectively legalised abortion across the States. Since then it has grown exponentially and supporters now march through cities in Ireland, Mexico, Belgium, France, Germany, Bolivia, Columbia, Australia, New Zealand, Peru and Spain, under the same banner.

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One of the most controversial tactics anti-abortion groups use is displaying graphic images of foetuses. In the UK a group called Abort67 organises people to stand outside clinics, colleges and in city centres with photographic banners. Abort67 describe themselves as a public education project and are part of the Centre for Bioethical Reform UK, which has connections to a Centre for Bioethical Reform based in California.

In the US there’s money to be made from campaigning against abortion; big names can be paid thousands of dollars to deliver speeches to stadium-sized audiences. Katherine O’Brien is spokesperson for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the organisation that runs the majority of abortion clinics in the UK and raises awareness of the detrimental impact clinic protests have on women seeking healthcare. “We can’t prove it, but we think money comes over from the States,” O’Brien tells me.

Pam Lowe, an academic from the University of Aston who has researched anti-abortion groups, has found that 40 Days for Life operates like a franchise. She tells me that the groups here rely on local fundraising, as well as money made from conferences and training events and in-kind donations from UK churches.

The American influence isn’t just about money though; it’s also about ideas. Sheelagh McGuinness, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol, has researched connections between anti-abortion activity in the UK and the US. She says that UK groups are borrowing strategies from the States, which include “making use of existing legal frameworks to protest abortion provision”.

In 1992 a man from Texas called Mark Crutcher compiled an 86-page document titled Firestorm: A Guerrilla Strategy for Pro-life America. He argued that it was unlikely that Roe v Wade would be repealed, so instead anti-abortionists should use other means. As he put it: “Today, we have opportunities before us which, if properly exploited, could result in an America where abortion may indeed be perfectly legal, but no one can get one.”

Crutcher’s plan was to increase the costs associated with abortion – the psychological and financial costs, to both abortion providers and women accessing abortion – using legal and non-violent means. He suggested five strategies that he numbered G (for guerrilla) one to five. They are: reducing the number of clinicians willing to provide terminations; increasing litigation against providers; increasing legislation, and where possible framing it in the language of concern for women; making provision difficult; and encouraging the sidelining of key abortion services from mainstream healthcare.
Whether Crutcher was the first to suggest this strategy or his publication reflects a general consensus within the movement is difficult to know. What is clear is that the slow chipping away at access to abortion has had a profound impact in the US.

Aggressive protests and violence aimed at abortion providers in the US are well documented; what are less well known are the numerous laws that don’t reverse Roe v Wade but do make abortion difficult to carry out. Some of these are known as TRAP laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers), and they are aimed at making it difficult for abortion clinics to function. In some states, for example, laws have been enacted that require clinic buildings to meet certain specifications. The buildings then require renovations that are so expensive they have to be shut down. Other laws aim to reduce abortion take-up: 12 states require abortion providers to tell women that the foetus can feel pain. In Texas, doctors are required to show a woman scans and play the sound of the heartbeat. In South Dakota a woman legally has to obtain counselling from an anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centre” before she is allowed an abortion. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which carries out research into reproductive health, 288 abortion-restrictive laws have been adopted in the States since 2010.

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In 2011 when the Health and Social Care Bill was being debated in the House of Commons Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire, proposed an amendment. She suggested changing the statutory duties the NHS must provide when a woman is having an abortion to include “independent information, advice and counselling services for women requesting termination of pregnancy.” Abortion providers such as BPAS or Marie Stopes should not be considered “independent”, according to Dorries.

Pro-choice groups saw this as an attempt to reduce access to abortion by stealth. They worried “independent” counselling could be run by groups that were actually anti-abortion (as in South Dakota). The move also reflects Crutcher’s suggestion of using language that suggests caring for women: after all, who would disagree with counselling? Dorries, however, was adamant that she did not want to restrict access to abortion. In this case, the amendment didn’t pass.
More recently Fiona Bruce, Conservative MP for Congleton and chair of the pro-life all party parliamentary group, attempted to implement a law banning sex-selective abortion. As it stands a woman is legally allowed to terminate her pregnancy if she has the permission of two doctors who agree an abortion would cause less damage to her physical or mental health than continuing with the pregnancy. While sex-selective terminations are not specifically named in the law, choosing to have an abortion on the grounds of the gender of the foetus is already illegal.

Sally Sheldon, a legal expert who looked into the practicalities of implementing a specific law banning sex-selective abortion, said it was likely to be unworkable and intrusive. It would either involve a high level of questioning of every woman seeking an abortion, or racial profiling, as certain ethnic groups are associated with the practice.

Laws banning sex-selective abortion have been implemented in eight states in America and considered by 21. A study from the University of Chicago concluded that these laws are not actually aimed at combating gender discrimination, but are intended to limit access to abortion generally. Bruce’s attempts to implement the law here were unsuccessful, but they did result in a government investigation into the prevalence of sex-selective abortions in the UK, which “found no substantiated concerns of gender abortions occurring in England, Wales and Scotland.”

Attempts at changing the law have not had an impact in the UK so far. But Pam Lowe’s research found that many women reported significant distress, alarm and fear due to clinic protests. In west London, while a man near us stood filming the clinic, I spoke to Anna Veglio-White, the organiser of the pro-choice protest. “The council should step in, they should ban the protesters,” she told me. Her call is reflected in a national campaign for buffer zones – legal restrictions on protesting outside clinics.

Buffer zones have been implemented in Australia, Canada and parts of the US, but they’re not without difficulties (including the length of the restriction). The pro-life movement claim buffer zones would contradict their right to free speech, which is not to be taken lightly. Lowe thinks it’s important that anti-abortionists have their say, but since her research shows their presence at clinics is experienced by women as harassment, she doesn’t think they are the place to be having debate.

So what does the future hold for abortion? The next year could be pivotal. In Scotland abortion law was recently devolved, a move welcomed by anti-abortionists as it means MSPs could reduce the existing 24-week limit. In Northern Ireland, where the Abortion Act was never extended, a recent proposal to make a termination legal if a woman has been raped or where the foetus would not survive outside the womb was rejected, to the outrage of many. The recent case of a 21-year-old woman given a suspended prison sentence for inducing an abortion using pills she bought online shocked many and brought the issue of abortion rights in Northern Ireland back into the spotlight.

On the pro-choice side, BPAS, the British Humanist Association, the Fawcett Society, The Royal College of Midwives and 20 other organisations have come together to campaign to remove abortion from criminal law and have it regulated by guidance as with other medical procedures. Such a move would take us off the American path entirely and send a clear message that Britain is pro-choice.

While those who oppose a woman’s right to access abortion are a small minority, they are active, organised, and have tried-and-tested strategies to follow. But they will only succeed if given the space. As Lowe put it, “the majority of people think abortion is a done deal. They don’t think it’s something under attack.”