Anti-Abortion Activism in Britain

By Pam Lowe & Sarah-Jane Page, Aston University

On Saturday, 5 May, approximately 1300 anti-abortion activists marched down Whitehall into Parliament Square, to be greeted by a counter rally of pro-choice activists determined to defend and extend access to abortion in the UK and beyond. For both sides, this encounter was particularly poignant, coming just over a week of the 50th anniversary on the enactment of the 1967 Abortion Act, and in the run up to the referendum on abortion in the Republic of Ireland.

Since 1967, acceptance for abortion has grown across the UK and the British Social Attitudes Survey reveals that over 90% of people in the UK believe that abortion should be available in at least some circumstances.  Many of those who religiously identify also often support abortion in some form. Yet despite the UK being an overwhelmingly pro-choice country, there are continuing battles over abortion and a small number of people remain active in opposing it.  

The 1967 Abortion Act was an important landmark for equality for women in Britain, although it never applied to Northern Ireland, leaving women there needing to travel to the mainland or risk criminal sanctions through accessing abortion pills via the internet. Rather than overturn existing legislation, the 1967 Act provided a medical exception. If two doctors, in good faith, believe that an abortion would meet one of the conditions laid out in the Act, and the abortion takes place within a hospital or other registered premises then no one will be prosecuted. Whilst this gave women a safe, legal route to abortion, it nevertheless placed the decision-making about abortion in the hands of (presumed male) doctors. In today’s society, where medical paternalism has been rejected in other circumstances, and women are usually seen as equal, this continuing framework over abortion seems an anachronism. In addition, as the 1967 Act failed to repeal the existing legislation, this means the penalty for women who access abortion outside the terms of the Act is potentially life imprisonment. Doctors too can be prosecuted if they are seen as not adhering to the legal principles. This legal framework has led to a campaign for the decimalisation of abortion across the UK.

Alongside the campaigns for, and against, decriminalisation and for access to abortion in Northern Ireland, there is also a battle taking place outside abortion clinics. In many places across the UK, anti-abortion activists routinely stand outside abortion clinics with the aim of dissuading women from having abortions. There are two particular ways of doing this - holding ‘prayer vigils’ or ‘pavement counselling’ and these are sometimes combined. The numbers of people involved in  ‘prayer vigils’ vary, often it is just one or two but groups as large as 60-70 may congregate on certain occasions.  Sometimes the prayers are said silently, but at other times they will be aloud, sometimes with hymn singing included, so the sound can be heard inside the clinic. ‘Pavement Counselling’ is when individuals approach women directly, to try to persuade them to continue with their pregnancies. 

Research has shown that many women experience the presence of anti-abortion activists outside clinics as a source of significant anxiety and distress.  Women approaching abortion clinics have no idea of the intentions of the anti-abortion activists, other than they might intend to stop them, and this uncertainly was often a cause of their feelings of intimidation or fear. Moreover, the public presence of the anti-abortion activists draws attention to the clinic, making what should be a routine private entry into a medical facility into a matter of public debate. Although anti-abortion activists believe that their actions are supportive, women accessing the clinics see them as potentially dangerous strangers. Given the wider context of gendered street harassment, and the steps women often routinely have to take to protect themselves against unwanted encounters, it is not surprising that the anti-abortion activists are seen in this way.

Earlier this year, Ealing Council became the first place in the UK to enact a ‘bufferzone’ (an area around an abortion clinic where activists both for and against abortion are prohibited from congregating) in response to complaints about the anti-abortion activists outside of a clinic. For abortion rights activists, ‘bufferzones’ are a proportionate measure to reduce the harassment of women and protect their healthcare privacy. Anti-abortion activists seem them as an attack on their freedoms to assemble and practice their religion. Importantly, in the case of Ealing, the complaints about the presence and behaviour of the anti-abortion activists arose not just from women accessing abortion and the clinic staff, but also from passers-by and those living in the vicinity. Many parents had particular objections to the signs used by anti-abortion activists around the clinic.   

This example emphasises conflicts over public space and the relationship between freedom of religion and women’s access to healthcare. In the British context, participants at prayer vigils are likely to identify as Catholic, and specific Catholic symbolism, such as rosary beads, and images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, are utilised as part of the public display opposing abortion. The use of Our Lady of Guadalupe is important, as this image denotes a pregnant Madonna. Although more typically, this image is utilised to signify the conversion of Mexico to Christianity, the image has been reappropriated by anti-abortion activists, becoming a significant symbol in their campaign, with her image worn as badges, depicted on clothing such as T-shirts, and her image carried through the streets in anti-abortion processions. Meanwhile, pro-choice counter-activists also deploy religious symbols in their campaigning. It may be assumed that this takes an anti-religion line, but often it is more complex than this. One notable example is a pro-choice activist in Nottingham dressing up as Jesus, holding a sign saying “I never said that”, and pointing at an anti-abortion poster. A police community support officer told him to remove the costume, it being interpreted as offensive to religion. But the campaigner was making an important theological point about the absence of any Gospel teaching on abortion. This battle over space and how religious symbolism is utilised in abortion debates looks likely to continue as the use of ‘buffer zones’ is debated more widely.