Polls show most U.K. citizens support a woman’s right to choose abortion. But U.S.-style anti-choice tactics are picking up speed and fostering an aggressive activism movement marked by website hacking and clinic vigils.
BATH, England (WOMENSENEWS)–The United Kingdom may be a pro-choice nation in polling data, but U.S.-style anti-choice tactics are being used to attack that consensus.
Seventy percent of U.K. citizens polledin 2011 said it was a woman’s right to choose whether she continues her pregnancy.
But this pro-choice majority has long been opposed by vocal anti-abortion groups, such as the London-based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, founded in 1966. And now U.S. anti-choice groups have expanded into the U.K., bringing more aggressive tactics that overshadow the homegrown movement.
One such organization is 40 Days for Life, founded in College Station, Texas, in 2004. The group’s self-proclaimed tactic is what they call peaceful prayer outside abortion clinics. (Its name refers to the length of the biannual vigils the group conducts.) However, employees of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service have reported that members of one vigil approached women attending the Bedford Square in London clinic. The Guardian has also reported that clinic workers accused 40 Days activists of filming people entering the clinics.
A second group, Abort67, is the English offspring of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, an anti-choice lobby group with headquarters in Lake Forest, Calif. The group, founded by Greg Cunningham, a former advisor to President Ronald Reagan, has more extreme tactics than 40 Days. Primarily active in Brighton and London, they display graphic images of late-term fetuses outside clinics in protest.
This type of graphic protest, fairly uncommon among British anti-choice groups, has proven to be an effective scare tactic. A rape victim, who walked through a protest by Abort67 to enter an abortion clinic, told her local paper it left her feeling “intimidated… panicky and judged.”
Beyond protests, the criminal hacking of an abortion provider’s website here also had U.S. ties. In April, James Jeffrey was convicted of attacking a British Pregnancy Advisory Service website and stealing the personal information of 10,000 women who had registered with the site. He was also convicted of vandalizing the site with slogans referring to the “abortion industry,” a term with roots in U.S. anti-abortion rhetoric.
Following Jeffrey’s conviction, the BBC reported 2,500 attempts to hack the British Pregnancy Advisory Service’s website again, with more than half of those attacks originating in the United States.
Parliamentary efforts are also taking a harder anti-choice line. Conservative Member of Parliament for Mid-Bedfordshire Nadine Dorries has twice attempted to introduce legislation to lower the legal limit for abortion in the U.K. to 21 weeks from 24 weeks.
After these attempts failed, Dorries began casting aspersion on abortion providers. She criticized counseling provided by clinics as “biased” during a parliamentary debate on National Health Service practices in September last year.
The charge – common in the U.S. anti-choice movement – implied that providers were financially motivated profiteers. It has since gained currency within mainstream right-wing papers in the U.K., such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.
This is despite the fact that the vast majority of U.K. abortions are provided either by not-for-profit bodies (mostly Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service) on behalf of the National Health Service, or by the National Health Service itself. Just 4 percent of abortions are privately funded, according to the Department of Health.
Although Dorries’ amendment was defeated, Anne Milton, the parliamentarian under secretary of state for health, said during the September debate that she was sympathetic to Dorries’ aims. She established a committee to discuss the possibility of independent abortion counseling. Dorries is on that committee, which was due to submit a report at the end of April that hasn’t been published yet.
Pro-choice M.P. Diane Abbott resigned from the committee in January, calling it a front for anti-abortion ideology.
In the face of these attacks, U.K. pro-choice activists are becoming increasingly organized. In Brighton and London, where 40 Days for Life has been most active, an initiative called “40 Days of Treats” delivered cakes and biscuits to the affected clinics for every day of the 40 Days for Life’s vigil.
When the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child held roadside vigils to mark the anniversary of the 1967 abortion act–which legalized abortion in cases where a woman’s health or life is at risk or if a child is likely to be born with a serious mental or physical disability–pro-choice activists throughout the U.K. held counter-protests.
On May 16, a pro-choice parliamentary meeting organized by the Abortion Rights Campaign brought activists, journalists, abortion providers and parliamentarians together to discuss how best to resist attacks on the right to choose.
But these groups are now clearly on the defensive.
In March, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley ordered inspections of every abortion clinic in the U.K., following a sting operation by the Telegraph newspaper. Doctors who provide abortions say this has left them feeling attacked and demoralized.
Clare Murphy, head of public policy at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said in an article for the Independent in March that there is a worrying possibility that doctors will be deterred from training to perform abortions at all.
Sarah Ditum lives in Bath, England. She is a freelance journalist on politics, family and health.