Anti-abortionists on the rise in the UK

US style tactics of displays outside of abortion clinics has become increasingly popular here in the UK over the past 6 years.

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In 2014, British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) launched their ‘back off’ campaign where they hope to have ‘buffer zones’ between clinics and the displays.

Head of advocacy and campaigns at BPAS Abigail Fitzgibbon, believes that the groups are just trying to provoke an emotional reaction from women.  She absolutely agrees that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and a presence in a public space where it is legal but she also states that ‘the truth is what they are doing is not protests or displays when it’s outside of a clinic but it’s a campaign of harassment’ she goes on to say if they had a problem with the law to protest outside The Department of Health which would be similar to how most protests are held.

There are a number of anti abortion groups here in the UK and each one has a different approach to vocalising their opinions. 40 days for life are a Christian group that in the 40 days of lent, hold vigils outside of clinics and participate in silent prayer.

Another Christian group is a post-abortion support group. Manchester based organisation Image provides support for both men and women struggling after an abortion. Rebecca Johnson is a volunteer and talks about how they help clients with post-abortion stress that can present itself in many ways from grief and guilt to anger and depression. They offer a ‘Step by Step’ programme to explore the thoughts and feelings of the client in a safe place in the hope of finding a new sense of peace and freedom.

Each year Image also holds a National Day of Prayer where in Johnson’s words they ‘pray for an end to abortion in our nation.’

An anti-abortion group that often hits the headlines is Abort67 which are a secular group that hold graphic images and distribute leaflets in the hope of ‘showing the truth about abortion.’ This group hold ‘educational displays’ outside of clinics but also in city centres.

Andrew Stephenson, the founder of abort67, says that the main goal of their displays is to ‘stop pretending that abortion is healthcare, to move people who are pro-abortion to pro-life, and those who are pro-life to action.’

Whilst also holding graphic images at the displays, volunteers also hand out leaflets. In these leaflets, there are more graphic images and lots of emotive language used to spark a reaction from the public. As Stephenson has said he wishes to motivate people into action rather than people sitting on the fence with their views.

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Before each display abort67 will notify the local police of where and when their display will be taking place. Most displays take place outside of abortion clinics.

At Manchester Piccadilly Gardens the display is held right next to the Manchester City Centre Neighbourhood policing team, in an attempt to show that the police are fully aware of what is happening.

This is a result of the police being called to several of their displays.  Abort67 member Kathryn Attwood has been a part of the group since she was 16 years old and has been arrested three times. She says that the police were just reacting to the public claiming that the images upset them, she believes now that ‘thankfully our right to free speech has been upheld and we continue to display, now without the constant threat of arrest.’

Each volunteer for the Abort67 displays must sign a volunteer agreement. Promising to not pressure members of the public and should condemn abortion related violence.

consent form
The volunteer consent form that each volunteer must sign before participating in the displays

As a further result of previous displays, one of the members will more than likely be wearing a body camera, they say that this is to ensure that if violence or threatening acts take place they can use the footage as evidence.

When asked how they approach members of public, John McKenna stated that he would see if someone was taking a glance at the posters and then ask them ‘I see you looking at our posters, what are your views on this?’ They often say well I haven’t really thought about it, and that’s the whole idea, to open up what they think about the issue.’

While Manchester Piccadilly Gardens was very busy on the Saturday lunchtime, only a handful of people vocalised their opposition to the group. One of which was Daniella Lightowlers who spoke to the group for about 10 minutes getting into a debate. This is according to McKenna one of the reasons why he volunteers for the displays. He wants abortion to be put on a platform so that everyone can have an open and honest debate about the issue. Abort67 founder Andrew Stephenson also agrees with this outlook as he does not believe that an opposing view is a negative one, he says ‘it really is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.’

Lightowlers, while appreciating their right to express their views, she also said ‘They don’t give a s*** about women, they don’t care about pro life, they care about pro birth…if you give a woman less rights than what she needs, to be able to access safe abortion and healthcare, you are legally giving women less rights than a dead body.’ She explains further what she means by that, saying when you die you have to have give consent to take anything from their body, but as a woman if the law were to change you would be forcing her to carry a baby.

Of course there were also passers by that shouted their opinions whilst making their way past. The main one being ‘my body my choice.’ One woman who hurried past the images made the comment ‘3 men stood telling women what they should do with their bodies.’

There was a mix of volunteers at the display with some travelling from just down the road to some who had travelled from as far as Chester and the Wirral.

One woman who chooses to remain anonymous, stated she was once pro choice, as when her daughter fell pregnant at a young age she wanted her to have an abortion, ‘I really wanted her to have an abortion because I didn’t understand it was a life.’ Now reflecting back she is grateful that she didn’t persuade her daughter as now she has her grandson.  Her main argument for being against abortion is ‘What do we do? Do we let that life live and give it a chance to be what it’s supposed to be? Or do we kill it before it gets that chance?’

Another woman at the display, Ruth Boulton, likes what abort67 do as they show the realities of abortion. She believes that if ‘you’re all for looking after the whales and the refugees, let’s look after these little ones, that scream silently every day.’

Both Boulton and another volunteer, Michael Freely, speak about how if we didn’t use the term abortion but said ‘killing babies’ then the mood of the country would change. We would not be desensitised to the idea of abortion. Freely talks about how he doesn’t understand why there is even debate about ‘killing babies’.

Before you got to the display there was a sign that the group put up to warn people of the graphic images that lay ahead of them. Unfortunately these do not allow for those people on public transport going past or shoppers on the opposite side of the road to be warned about the images.

While this display was nowhere near an abortion clinic, 1 in 3 women have an abortion in their lifetime. Meaning that on a busy Saturday lunchtime in the city centre of Manchester as hundreds of people walk up and down the streets it would not be inaccurate to say that the images would have caused someone emotional distress. This display would not be affected by the BPAS back off campaign as they are just using their freedom of speech to stand in a public space and ‘educate and inform about the truth of abortion’

In an anonymous online survey one women who had had an abortion said that if she saw these displays she would feel ‘angry as it has nothing to do with them.’ Another woman said that they shouldn’t be doing it as ‘people don’t know the reason they are having one.’

BPA’S Abigail Fitzgibbon believes that all women who have an abortion know what they are doing and ‘have thought about it very hard or they wouldn’t be coming to us to seek our help.’

Countries like the U.S, France and Canada have already introduced buffer zones between their abortion clinics and anti-abortionists. They also limit photography and recording as it could risk exposing the identity of women at the clinic.

While abort67 continue to ‘educate and inform’ BPAS will continue to try and follow in the footsteps of these countries to create buffer zones.

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