Campaigners will be visiting your constituency to educate people about what you really stand for, warned a tweet sent to Labour MP Stella Creasy last Saturday. She immediately contacted the police and Waltham Forest council; the first of many calls made over several days due to the actions of these campaigners. As thanks for her tireless work in ensuring that abortion will be decriminalised in Northern Ireland after 21 October, she and the residents of Walthamstow were soon faced with a 20-foot billboard of a dead foetus next to a picture of Creasy’s face. The caption across the pictures read “your MP is working hard to take away my human rights”.
These graphic images are the first step of the #StopStella campaign demanding the MP stop her efforts to amend the Domestic Abuse Bill currently going through parliament to ensure abortion can be decriminalised across all of the UK. It turns out that educating people about Creasy standing for full bodily autonomy amounts to “saturating Walthamstow… with the humanity of the unborn child and the reality of abortion”. In truth this is not any form of public education, as these people don’t really want a debate. Their campaign is built on tactics of intimidation, harassment and furthering abortion stigma in a country that overwhelmingly accepts the right to choose.
Thankfully, after large public outcry, the billboards are due to be taken down. Clear Channel, the advertising agency that owns the billboards, has since apologised, promising to remove the graphic images as well as donating the money it received for them to Abortion Support Network, a pro-choice charity. For many, this will be the end of the story, the publication of distressing images that was quickly resolved by the company in question and sparking some conversations about the need for advertising reform. But it will take more than an appeal to advertising standards to stop these groups advertising their abuse. Though they may have failed in the attempt to saturate Walthamstow with their anti-choice message, they are succeeding in dripfeeding harassment and abuse to women day after day across the UK.
The StopStella campaign is being run by the Centre for Bioethical Reform UK (CBR-UK), the UK branch of a conservative US organisation. Founded in 1990 by a member of the Reagan administration, the organisation’s primary activity is the “Genocide Awareness Project”, a similar billboard campaign likening abortion to past atrocities such as the Holocaust. All tactics that have been adopted and carried out with vigour by their British counterparts over the last decade. CBR-UK’s CEO and founder Andy Stephenson has defended the use of distressing pictures of foetuses by arguing: “Slave trade abolitionists were using graphic, disturbing images of Africans being brutalised by the slave trade.”
This defence didn’t fly when Stephenson was arrested under the Public Order Act for refusing to take down a graphic banner outside an abortion clinic in Brighton in 2010 after a concerned member of staff called the police. For the people behind CBR-UK, it’s been actions like these more than the recent billboards that have defined their anti-abortion campaigning over the last decade. Outside clinics across the UK, from Portsmouth to Ealing and Manchester to Richmond, women attending appointments have had to face members of this group lined up outside entrances.
Service users at many of these clinics are left to run a gauntlet of protesters holding posters proclaiming “thou shalt not kill”, subjected to being referred to as “mum” and “murderer”, handed leaflets with substantial misinformation, told they are in the wrong place and, in some cases, having their entrance to clinics blocked. Meanwhile, nurses are left unable to take their lunch breaks outside for fear of conflict, with cases of assault and vandalism to cars on-site having occurred in the past. Police are repeatedly called to deal with these protestors, but little can be done to stop them. Several hundred complaints brought the Walthamstow billboards down in one week, but it took two decades of harassment in Ealing and thousands of petition signatures from local residents before a buffer zone could be put in place to keep women safe from these protesters.
Seen as the best way to tackle the issue, implementing buffer zones around clinics is a grindingly slow process. They can only be introduced via a Public Space Protection Order, local council by local council, after a period of consultation. Calls for national legislation on buffer zones were rejected last year by Sajid David, the then home secretary, as not being a “proportionate response” to protests that were largely “passive”. In the meantime, as women are harassed and intimidated and deterred from accessing necessary healthcare, groups like Sister Supporter provide the vital presence of positive support outside clinics, but government action on this can’t come soon enough.
When Creasy’s amendment to decriminalise abortion was overwhelmingly backed by MPs this July, it showed that parliament, as well as the public, is overwhelmingly pro-choice. What this week has shown us is that we should remember the right to choose must involve being able to do so free from harassment and intimidation. But, most of all, it should shame the government that an advertising agency can be seen to care more about women and tackle the distress anti-choice protestors can cause than them.
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