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British abortion protesters copy the US playbook

They’re here six days a week. The police are only here on Saturdays, so during the week they can do and say what they want.

Anna Veglio-White, founder of Sister Supporter

Ever since anti-abortion religious group 40 Days for Life first exported their clinic protests across the Atlantic in 2010, UK pro-choice groups have been asking for “buffer zone” laws to be introduced here. The zones, which have already been established in some US states, denote a perimeter around women’s clinics that anti-abortion protestors cannot breach. The UK government, however, is yet to listen.

Although 40 Days for Life protest outside UK women’s clinics all year round, they ramp up their activity during the 40 days of Lent. Sister Supporter is a British pro-choice group who have been holding counter-protests since November 2015. Every Saturday sees an uneasy stand-off between the two groups outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing, London.

By 2015, the BBC reported that half of UK women’s clinics had experienced anti-abortion protestors harassing patients outside their doors. In June 2016, a petition started by Sister Supporter which demanded buffer zones for UK clinics gained over 10,000 signatures, which means it must be considered by UK parliament. The Home Office responded that current laws already provide “protection against harassment and intimidation.” Sister Supporter are now trying a different tack: collecting witness statements to prove that the anti-abortion protestors violate the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.

Sister Supporter’s founder Anna Veglio-White told me the statements are crucial to convey the viewpoints of local residents who dislike 40DFL’s presence in their community, as well as “witnesses to the harassment that we don’t necessarily see on a Saturday because the police are here.” She told me that the anti-abortion activists “who are here daily live off donations. They are being paid to stand there,” giving a new meaning to Donald Trump’s idea of “paid protestors,” whereas Sister Supporter is run on a shoe-string and relies entirely on volunteers.

The call for buffer zones was reiterated in October 2016 after a Channel 4 documentary Dispatches investigated 40 Days for Life’s practices of harassing, filming and misinforming pregnant women. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Royal College of Midwives and numerous other women’s groups signed an open letter in The Times urging the Home Secretary to establish buffer zones. Member of Parliament (MP) Keir Starmer has also backed the idea, and Sister Supporter’s activism is endorsed by Rupa Huq, MP for Ealing and Acton.

I spoke to Maria, a member of 40 Days for Life, at the Ealing protests. She told me “We want [women] to make an informed decision. To know what the baby looks like at different stages and then if they want to keep it, to be able to do so, financially, legally and morally.”

One might suggest that if a woman has questions about the stages of fetal development, she can ask her doctor or look on the NHS website, and is likely to have researched her decision long before she reaches the clinic steps. Much of the exasperation from pro-choice and feminist groups is aimed at the anti-abortionists’ presumption that women are uninformed about what a termination entails, and don’t know their own minds.

I took one of the leaflets that 40 Days for Life were distributing outside the Ealing clinic and immediately spotted a long-debunked claim on it; that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. The leaflet — which never uses the term zygote, embryo, or fetus, only “baby” — also states that “inability to become pregnant in future” is a possible risk of abortion, even though the National Health Service states the exact opposite. While some of the risks of abortion mentioned in the leaflet are real — infection, excessive bleeding, damage to the uterus or cervix — it fails to mention that these are extremely rare occurrences, and that women are 14 times more likely to die in childbirth than from abortion-related complications.

40 Days for Life’s leaflet also claims that women who have abortions risk depression, suicidal ideation, “obsession with the would-be birth date,” “re-experiencing the abortion,” “damage to maternal instinct and to bonding process with any other children you have,” alcohol and drug abuse, and eating disorders.

Again, the defense that they are just providing women with information might ring a lot truer if said information was accurate. In 2016, the New York Times reported that a study of 1000 women had found that women who had abortions “did not experience more depression, anxiety, low self-esteem or dissatisfaction with life than those who were denied it.” Even more tellingly, “psychological symptoms increased only in women who sought abortions but were not allowed to have the procedure.” The article also states that previous studies linking mental health problems with abortion were riven with “methodological pitfalls.”

Maria was adamant that 40 Days for Life do not harass women, saying; “I wouldn’t call [this] a protest. You have a counselor who’s on hand and two people who are praying especially for that person.” However, Sister Supporter told me a different story: “When they’re here from Monday to Friday they stand right in the gate so you have to say “excuse me” to get past them.” Anna Veglio-White added that a pro-choice supporter had found a distressed young woman crying in a nearby road. “She said she was supposed to be coming for an abortion but couldn’t find the clinic. And one of [40DFL] had told her this wasn’t the clinic. And she had missed her appointment, [was] completely lost, didn’t know where she was. It’s stuff like that – when the police aren’t around, no one’s here to stop them.”

Recent media spotlight on UK abortion law has been unhelpful, with The Daily Mail carrying out a “sting” on a Marie Stopes clinic and claiming that abortions were being signed off “in just 22 seconds.” Harriet Williamson pointed out in The Independent that the alleged 22 seconds were actually part of a 16 minute phone call and that nothing about the clinic’s actions violated British law (whereby 2 doctors have to sign off on an abortion, but there is no actual obligation for the patient to have met the second doctor).

Williamson called the Daily Mail story “a manufactured controversy. It’s designed to discredit Marie Stopes, and stimulate outrage among conservatives. And in doing so, it obscures real injustices in the abortion system – namely that in modern Britain, a woman still needs the permission of two doctors . . .to terminate a pregnancy.”

Sister Supporter echoed this sentiment “The frustrating thing with this Daily Mail piece, the 22 seconds thing, is it’s getting so much press and [yet] no one’s reading stuff about Crisis Pregnancy Centres [non-medical organizations backed by anti-abortion groups known for giving out misinformation to pregnant women]. Dispatches did a documentary about the CPCs as well, [but] that didn’t go anywhere.”

Unfortunately, it would seem that attacking abortion providers, a sector already clearly under siege, is a quick way to gain headlines for Britain’s right-wing press. Regardless, Sister Supporter remain determined to reflect what they believe is the opinion of wider UK society, as well as that of their local community.

Photo: Steve Rhodes/Creative Commons