fo most people in the UK, the world of anti-abortion activism is an unfamiliar territory and many are unaware of the extreme views of these activists. From associating abortion with Satanism, to opposing sex and anti-birth control, to calling for abortion to be banned in cases of rape, the beliefs of many anti-abortion activists are at odds with broader societal attitudes.
After all, British polls of social attitudes show that religious people are almost as likely to believe that women should have the right to choose to have an abortion as non-religious people. While a study conducted by YouGov and MSI Reproductive Choices UK previously found that nine in ten UK adults believe women should have access to abortion services in the UK and should explicitly identify themselves as ‘pro-choice’. In other words, the vast majority of Brits believe in a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body, even if they personally oppose abortion.
But anti-abortion activists take a very different approach; Instead, they use a variety of tactics to try to discourage women from having abortions. Many resort to vigorous, aggressive strategies, including shouting “mother” or “murderer” at women who have access to clinics, handing out medically flawed pamphlets, and chasing women on the streets. And the problem of protesters attacking women outside of abortion clinics is widespread – with more than 100,000 women visiting clinics hit by anti-abortion demonstrations in 2019.
However, the anti-abortion movement is made up of a number of organizations that hold different beliefs and use different tactics. The anti-abortion movement in the UK can be divided into two main categories. The first are Catholic groups and the second are Evangelical-Protestant groups, with each faction taking very different approaches to campaigning.
“More and more in your face protests are being organized by evangelical Protestants,” says Rachael Clarke of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Britain’s largest abortion provider LatestPageNews. “They stand in front of clinics with posters, they often have signs with writing or a microphone on their head, they call women ‘murderers’, they use graphic images.”
Ms Clarke explained that these organizations represent an absolutist interpretation of the Bible – adding that they describe themselves as abolitionists. “What they mean is that they are against all abortion for any reason – even if the woman’s life is threatened if she continues with her pregnancy,” she adds.
The activist pointed out that she opposes “heartbeat bills,” an already extreme form of legislation popular in some US states that bans abortions once heart activity is detected. This can happen around the sixth week of pregnancy, when many women don’t even know they’re pregnant as it’s only been two weeks since their missed period. However, doctors warn that this view is wrong, since embryos do not have a developed heart at this point.
Campaigners against Heartbeat Bills are contesting the legislation as they believe abortion should be banned from the moment conception begins, Ms Clarke explains. “They often wear body cams,” she adds. “It’s scary that they have cameras. What women who have access to abortion clinics feel is that they are being filmed accessing health care.”
Ms Clarke noted that Catholic anti-abortion activists’ tactics were “more insidious” – adding that this often lies in following women who want abortions in down-the-street clinics, calling them “mothers”, above her Talk to baby and hand it to her rosary beads. “They spread the lie that abortion causes breast cancer,” she adds. “While they think abortion as a whole is wrong, they recognize how inappropriate it is for society as a whole.”
The activist said the two branches of anti-abortion activism don’t like each other very much, as she explained in her experience, they don’t mix. But Ms Clarke concluded that the diverse tactics employed by various anti-abortion activists all have one thing in common: the fact that they are “incredibly distressing” for those who want abortions.
Ms Clarke argued that anti-abortion activism in the UK has been characterized by a “cycle of recruitment and radicalisation” outside of clinics. Activists will persuade a woman outside of a clinic not to have access to an abortion and then bring those women on board to lobby to stop other women having abortions, she said.
“These women they recruit are vulnerable,” adds Ms Clarke. “Not just because of the situation they’re in, but because they’re taken off an established clinical pathway with trained psychological support and essentially mugged by roadside strangers.”
Ms Clarke said large parts of the anti-abortion movement are opposed to sex education, as she warned they were opposed to sex outside of marriage – adding that the purpose of sex is to have children, not inflict oneself enjoyment.
“The pro-life movement is linked to those who are against sex education, to the ‘war on the awakened,’ to anti-gay marriage,” she muses. “It’s a web that connects everything. They invade different parts of the conversation by renaming themselves. It’s a new name and a new campaign, but the same people. Some of them do not believe in routine contraception and do not believe in abortion. It’s hard to say how many are against birth control – more people are against emergency contraception than against condoms.”
Ms Clarke said she believes the majority of anti-abortion campaigners in the UK are against abortion in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality or where the pregnancy endangers the woman’s life – with Dr. Pam Lowe, a sociologist specializing in anti-abortion activism in the UK and also believes this is the case.
“Most anti-abortion advocates in the UK do not believe in abortion for reasons of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality or when the woman’s life is in danger,” adds Dr. Lowe, associate professor of sociology and politics at Aston University. “It’s basically a total ban. In their worldview, abortion is almost the worst thing a woman can do. They believe that this has a fundamental impact on women’s mental and physical health, and therefore argue that rape is not so bad.”
While some anti-abortion activists view rape survivors as almost tantamount to a second rape, she adds. An Ealing Council Consultation Report Appendix referred to in Dr. Lowe’s book is referenced Anti-abortion activism in Britainilluminates this topic.
“I accompanied a friend to the clinic who was raped and became pregnant,” says a resident of Ealing, west London, who is quoted in the report. “A woman came up to her with a model fetus and said that my friend had ‘other options than killing her baby.’ My friend got very distressed and said she had been raped. The woman then said it was ‘very sad but it’s not the baby’s fault’.”
dr Lowe argued that banning abortion in cases where a woman’s life was in danger was “beyond cruel”, adding that abortion should be considered a human right as one could “die” of health complications without it .
A recent example of this relates to an American woman on vacation in Malta who saw doctors deny her a potentially life-saving abortion despite saying her baby had “zero chance of survival” after she was hospitalized with severe bleeding when she was 16 weeks old weeks pregnant. Malta has one of the toughest anti-abortion laws in the world – with abortions illegal in all contexts.
dr Lowe explained that some highly religious anti-abortion advocates associate abortion with the devil or an example of child sacrifice. For example, Wilfred Wong, one of the UK directors of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform UK, states that Satanists are connected to the “abortion agenda, the LGBT agenda, they’re involved in sex education” and claims Islam and Satanism are one have a common goal, “which is the destruction of Christianity”.
dr Lowe also pointed out that evangelical Protestant activists routinely compare abortion to the Holocaust, in which 17 million Jews and others were brutally murdered under the Nazi regime. Including Roma and Sinti, blacks, LGBT+ people, people with disabilities, Slavs, communists and other political opponents.
She turned her attention to the issue of birth control within the anti-abortion movement, saying that a significant proportion of anti-abortion campaigners in Britain would oppose birth control and claimed that almost all conservative Catholics in the anti-abortion movement would oppose birth control.
Her comments come after activists and academics spoke out last week LatestPageNews British anti-abortion advocates have been “emboldened” by the recent decision to end legal abortion rights in the US. They warned that US funding received from British groups was likely to “rise” following the fall of the US Supreme Court Deer vs Wade — the landmark decision that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973 — last month.
More than half of US states are expected to ban abortion or severely restrict policies after the decision, while some states will ban abortion even if a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
The problem of anti-abortion activism in Britain has spawned activists who have long called for the government to establish buffer zones outside abortion clinics across the country. A buffer zone stops anti-abortion protesters or other types of protesters who are in front of or in the immediate vicinity of the clinic.
The government in October 2018 rejected calls for the introduction of buffer zones barring anti-abortion demonstrations outside of clinics in the UK. ever buffer zone around an abortion clinic in 2018.