Roe v Wade: UK anti-abortion activists use US reversal to build support

‘They honestly don’t see the harm they are doing. To recognise themselves as being harmful, they would have to alter their religious beliefs,’ says academic

<p>Women seeking pregnancy terminations across the UK have long encountered abuse and harassment from activists outside abortion clinics </p>

Women seeking pregnancy terminations across the UK have long encountered abuse and harassment from activists outside abortion clinics

UK anti-abortion activists have been “emboldened” by the recent decision to scrap the legal right to have an abortion in the US, experts have warned.

Campaigners and academics told The Independent the US funding received by UK anti-abortion groups is likely to “ramp up” in the wake of the US Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade – the landmark decision that legalised abortion nationwide in 1973 – last month.

Many anti-choice organisations have released messages hailing the dismantling of the legal right to an abortion in America and claiming the UK must follow suit.

Women seeking pregnancy terminations across the UK have long encountered abuse and harassment from activists outside abortion clinics – with more than 100,000 women attending clinics targeted by anti-abortion demonstrations in 2019.

Intimidating and aggressive tactics employed by protesters include shouting “mum” or “murderer” at women accessing clinics as well as distributing medically erroneous pamphlets and following women down the street.

Dr Pam Lowe, a sociologist who specialises in anti-abortion activism in the UK, told The Independent: “There is no doubt they are already emboldened by the overturning of Roe v Wade.

“They have taken huge cheer from it. They are already mobilising around it – using it to infuse their supporters to try and get more people involved in anti-abortion activism.”

Dr Lowe, a senior lecturer in sociology and policy at Aston University, noted the win in America had triggered UK anti-abortion organisations to put call-outs for donations.

In some instances anti-abortion activists are extremely religious and deem abortions to be associated with the devil or an example of child sacrifice, she said.

Dr Lowe added: “Some of them talk about needing to protect themselves with holy water because of the malign influence they need to be protected from.

“The anti-abortion people outside clinics usually hold very conservative Christian religious views. People are entitled to their religious beliefs. The issue is the way their beliefs manifest has an impact on other people.

“They are there to draw public attention to the evil of abortion. That invites other people to judge women accessing abortion. You become the centre of attention – when all you want to do is access a private healthcare appointment.”

But the UK is a multifaith, multicultural society which gives women the right to choose to have an abortion if they so wish, she warned.

She noted anti-abortion activists buy into misinformation that abortions are physically dangerous and also profoundly distrust healthcare professionals in abortion clinics.

Dr Lowe said: “They believe abortion clinics are just there to make money but in fact, it is the opposite, they are non-profit. If you are looking for logic in their beliefs, you are not going to find it.

Being able to control your body and reproductive life is almost sacred. It is a human right. It is easy for anti-abortion activists to see this as a difference between life and death but it is the same for women seeking abortions. It is a choice between having a life you want or being forced to carry a pregnancy to term you don’t want and at worst having long-term health complications from doing so

Pam Lowe

“They think if you step over the threshold to the abortion clinic you will be forced to have one. They think abortion clinics don’t get any informed consent from patients and hide the harms of abortion to make money but in reality, this is not true.”

Anti-abortion activists “live in an insular bubble”, she added, noting it is a “unique” form of protest as it is directed at those who are vulnerable whereas other protests are directed “upwards” at “people who have more power”.

The dynamic between anti-abortion activists and those who are pro-choice is “emotive”, Dr Lowe warned.

She added: “They honestly don’t see the harm they are doing. To recognise themselves as being harmful, they would have to alter their religious beliefs.

“Being able to control your body and reproductive life is almost sacred. It is a human right. It is easy for anti-abortion activists to see this as a difference between life and death but it is the same for women seeking abortions.

Anti-abortion activists in the UK are very small in number but they are exceptionally well-organised and well-funded

Jonathon Lord

“It is a choice between having a life you want or being forced to carry a pregnancy to term you don’t want and at worst having long-term health complications from doing so.”

Carrying a pregnancy is far more dangerous for physical health than having an abortion, Dr Lowe added.

Dr Lowe noted that British social attitudes surveys show people of faith are almost as likely to support the right to choose an abortion as people of no faith.

Anti-abortion activists have made at least 50 repeated attempts to block abortion rights in the UK in recent decades but have been unsuccessful in their efforts, she said.

Her comments come after millions of women in America lost their legal right to terminate a pregnancy at the end of last month, with more than half of US states expected to ban abortion or heavily restrict policies in the wake of the decision. Some states are set to ban abortions even when a pregnancy is as a result of rape or incest.

Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow, told The Independent: “US abortion activists are training up activists here in the UK. I know that most of all, as people turn up in my town centre, with banners with my head next to pictures of dead babies.”

The anti-choice movement around the world is “connected”, sharing funding and supporting each other, the politician, who is an outspoken campaigner for abortion rights, added.

Jonathan Lord, medical director of MSI Reproductive Choices UK, a leading abortion provider, noted that anti-abortion activists here are hailing the overhaul of abortion rights in the US as a huge victory.

He said: “We are already seeing that with the harassment and protests outside clinics. They have ramped up their game in recent years.

“Anti-abortion activists in the UK are very small in number but they are exceptionally well-organised and well-funded. The funding, which all pretty much comes from America as far as we know, will just ramp up.

“They feel they are on a mission. They are able to catch whole congregations to write to MPs and ministers. Although they are few in a number, they have an impact that is way more than their numbers.”

Campaigners have long been calling for the government to roll out “buffer zones” outside abortion clinics nationally. A buffer zone stops anti-abortion protesters or any other types of demonstrators standing outside the clinic or in the near vicinity to it.

The government rejected calls for the introduction of buffer zones barring anti-abortion demonstrations outside clinics across the UK in October 2018. Local councils are able to introduce such measures under legislation rolled out in 2014 – with Ealing Council in west London introducing the UK’s first-ever “buffer zone” around an abortion clinic in 2018.

Grainne Teggart, of Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland arm, told The Independent: “The overturning of Roe v Wade has been a devastating blow for reproductive rights in the USA and its impact will be felt far and wide.

“Across the UK – including in Northern Ireland – anti-choice groups and a minority of anti-choice politicians will feel emboldened.

“However, they will be met by a strong, global network of campaigners working towards full realisation of reproductive rights – we’re proud to be part of this network. We will fight to ensure hard-won abortion rights are retained and strengthened.”

If you have been affected by the issues raised in this story, the NHS signposts to support through this page. Or you can speak to someone in confidence at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the UK’s largest abortion provider, by calling 03457 30 40 30 or emailing info@bpas.org. Or you can ring MSI Reproductive Choices, another leading abortion provider, on 0345 300 8090.

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