The Americanization of the U.K. Anti-Abortion Movement

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British pro-life activists are learning from their U.S. counterparts, adopting tougher tactics and harsher rhetoric.

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Anti-abortion activists on vigil outside a branch of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service Reuters

LONDON -- Since the first day of Lent, protestors have gathered across the street from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) on Bedford Square, praying and chanting in the name of halting abortions, or as it was put to me, "opening souls to the preciousness of human life."

The group, 40 Days for Life, has also approached women seeking consultation with BPAS, thrusting upon them literature that claims abortion is linked to breast cancer (it isn't) or that having a termination leads to alcoholism, drug use, and eating disorders (it doesn't). Some women who have used the Bedford Square clinic during Lent, according to BPAS policy manager Abigail Fitzgibbon, have said that the protesters made them feel humiliated, embarrassed, harassed, and even violated.

Two weeks prior to my visit, one activist had been caught filming anyone entering the building. Robert Colquhoun, spokesman for 40 Days for Life London, stressed to me that the cameraman was not affiliated with the incantators on Bedford Square. But the group did little or nothing to dissuade his actions. Colquhoun dismissed The Guardian's reporting, alleging vested interests and links between abortion providers and the newspaper.

Such vigils and protests are relatively new here, but they'll look familiar to anyone who has seen the American pro-life movement in action. We are witnessing the Americanization of the movement against abortion in the United Kingdom.

Since 1967, abortion has been decriminalised under certain circumstances pertaining to the mental and physical wellbeing of the mother and child. Every few years , the British pro-life movement attempts to roll back those laws, particularly in relation to the upper limit on abortions (currently set at 24 weeks). But Darinka Aleksic, campaign coordinator for Abortion Rights, told me that the new, Americanised movement represents something entirely new, a transatlantic cooperation that is transforming how British activists are fighting to overturn abortion rights.

Demonstrations under the banner of 40 Days for Life, locally organised community protests according to Colquhoun, are popping up in London, Brighton, Manchester, and Birmingham. But Colquhoun made it quite clear that they take a great deal of inspiration from their American brethren. They also receive support from officials in the Catholic Church. Other, more provocative organizations, such as Abort67, maintain direct links with institutions in the U.S., in this case the California-based Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, their parent affiliate, with whom they share campaign materials.

Abort67 mimics the American-style tactics propagated by their U.S.-based mother organization. Both stage rallies outside abortion clinics, usually armed with unnecessarily graphic images of aborted first-trimester foetuses designed to shock and sicken those who may be considering using those health centers. Abortion providers have also been subject to James O'Keefe-style candid camera operations, such as when the conservative newspaper The Daily Telegraph sent women into clinics to seek sex-selective terminations, illegal under U.K. law (and condemned by Aleksic and Abortion Rights).

Pro-life campaigners have also adopted the inflammatory rhetoric that regularly colors talk radio programs and political rallies in the U.S. Abort67, in their literature, label abortion akin to ethnic cleansing and genocide, and accuse those who adopt a pro-choice of wanting to round up children, "stand them against the wall and hose them down with an Uzi." At the 40 Days for Life vigil, Graziano Freschi, one of the protestors, did not flinch when explaining to me that abortion was "absolutely" morally equivalent to the Nazi Action T4 euthanasia program and the Holocaust. Colquhoun added, "6 million babies have died since the introduction of the Abortion Act in 1967," a clear reference to the death toll of the Shoah.

U.K. public debate on abortion has long been conducted with great civility. In the House of Commons, votes on abortion are classified as free votes, absent of party whips, and a matter of conscience -- recognition that the issue can, for many, never be grounded purely in science or medicine. Changes in the law are typically made to keep up with the evolving scientific consensus. When the upper limit was voted on in 2008, measures to lower the ceiling failed, since institutions like the British Medical Journal asserted at the time that survival rates for babies born at 23 weeks or less had not risen at all. Abortion, in other words, has been a medical issue.

That's all changing now. The new, Americanised breed of religiously inspired anti-abortion campaigners, Catholic and evangelical churches, and Members of Parliament are radically altering the nature of the debate in the Commons, which Aleksic described as "significantly different and alarming." Fresh intakes of Conservative MPs in 2005 and 2010, socially conservative in outlook, have fashioned caucuses that attempt to alter U.K. law to better reflect their spiritual beliefs. These include Cornerstone and the Conservative Christian Fellowship.

On abortion, the movement doesn't advocate total repeal of the Abortion Act, but seeks to pass U.S. Republican-inspired measures that would limit access to terminations by other means. Nadine Dorries' recent amendment to the Health and Social Bill sought to limit the role of BPAS and Marie Stopes in providing abortion counseling, by outsourcing their duties to independent organizations like CareConfidential. According to the BBC, CareConfidential  described terminations as "a most grievous sin". In its aims, this is reminiscent of the trans-vaginal ultrasound bill in Virginia and the 72-hour waiting period law in Utah.  In both cases, politicians on either side of the Atlantic are seeking to erect barriers that delay access to abortion, in the name of either a "right to know" or a cooling-off period.

The politico-religious movement is worrying some British abortion and contraceptive service-providers. BPAS' Fitzgibbon said that the 40 Days for Lifers outside her offices haven't affected the work they do in the immediate term. In the long run, she says this "vocal minority," in cooperation with their handmaidens in the Commons could do "a hell of a lot of damage."

The United Kingdom as a whole, both BPAS and Abortion Rights were at pains to assert, is generally pro-choice. And 96% of Britons who use BPAS do so through the state-run National Health Service. Unlike Planned Parenthood, they have never been used as a partisan political football, nor had to fight for their funding. But the Americanization of the anti-abortion movement gravely troubles both organizations, who fear that groups like Abort67 and 40 Days for Life, armed with fresh tactics, deft use of media, and noisier rhetoric, will lead an American-style assault on reproductive rights.

On Sunday night, a small, homemade bomb exploded outside a Planned Parenthood office in Wisconsin. This sort of violence, which Aleksic told me she did not expect to emerge here anytime soon, is unheard of in the U.K.. Then again, a few years ago, so was the extreme rhetoric that may play a role in inspiring it.

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Liam Hoare, a freelance writer specializing in foreign affairs, has written for The Forward and The Jewish Chronicle.

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