The image is gruesome. An aborted foetus with the words “unwanted baby – 24 weeks dead foetus”. Beside it is another image, with the words “wanted baby – 24 weeks live premature baby”.
A group of schoolchildren pass, on a trip to Whitehall. Some cover their eyes, some are making retching noises. Those who do look at the bloody picture are visibly shocked.
These two banners are 2.25m in height and together are 6m across. Beside them are members of Abort67 (named after the 1967 act that legalised abortion in the United Kingdom, regulating its provision through the NHS), the UK’s most militant anti-abortion organisation. Today, they are standing outside the Department of Health, but they are most often seen outside clinics that offer abortion. Some have cameras strapped to their chest, others hand out flyers with further upsetting images.
Andrew Stephenson, director of Abort67, an organisation he founded four years ago, admits that seeing such images is deeply unpleasant for the children, but believes that people need to see them because “babies are being tortured to death and people are not dealing with the reality of what’s going on”.
As we speak, a woman takes Stephenson to task: “Women have fought for abortion for decades and what you are showing is not what it is about. This is a misconception of abortion and misinformation. That foetus is not the age you say it is. This is violent bigotry and not the reality of abortion in the majority of Western countries.” Stephenson responds: “She’s getting upset at something she supports. All our images are aged by experts in the field. We get them from abortion clinics.”
Yet he admits he does not know exactly where the image used in the poster comes from, except it is not from the UK.
The rise in such protests, and the use of tactics previously seen in the American bible belt, has led to calls from abortion providers and MPs for buffer zones to be set up, so that women might access services without fear of intimidation or harassment. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service has established the Back Off campaign, calling for the entrances to clinics to be made protest-free zones, because “a liberal approach has enabled a few activists to push the boundaries of what is legally and morally acceptable”.
A recent concluded that the presence of anti-abortion activists outside clinics represents 'a significant source of distress for women seeking an abortion'
A spokeswoman for BPAS said: “In our experience, this is becoming more of an issue and it is new tactics that they are using. A few years ago, it was some nice nuns standing there, holding rosary beads. Now, we have larger numbers of people standing there, with graphic posters of dismembered foetuses, directly in front of the clinics. Some have cameras strapped on to their chests. We know they are sometimes filming women as they go into the clinic, intruding on what is a very private procedure. I think it is still a relatively small number of people that is engaged in the more extreme activity, and they represent a small minority view, but the impact such a small group can have is relatively significant.
She went on: “As these groups have developed, we have come to believe that they get a lot of their money from America, just as they have adopted a lot of the tactics of American protestors. Abort67 is particularly problematic outside clinics, and they often have cameras. They couch it in terms of educating women, which is not just patronising to women who are making a decision they have thought long and hard about, but it is also patently not true. Often, these groups give out information that is not accurate – that abortion causes breast cancer, leads to eating disorders. The majority of women we see are already mothers and have already given birth and know what it entails and don’t need to be ‘educated’ by a group of people who know nothing about their lives.”
Stephenson denies that his members harass or intimidate, claiming their cameras are not to film women, but for their own protection. But he does admit that some women are likely to believe they are being filmed, and that harassment and intimidation can still be felt by them purely by presence, rather than action. He says: “We are there because women have told us that seeing these images has made them change their mind. If BPAS were to show women these images, then we would back off, and stop the protest.”
A recent report by Aston University, analysing comment forms from clients of BPAS, concluded that the presence of anti-abortion activists outside clinics represents “a significant source of distress for women seeking an abortion – even where the conduct of anti-abortion activists is itself peaceful and polite”.
Outside a BPAS clinic in a residential street in London’s Richmond are two men. One stands across the street, praying next to a framed picture of the Virgin Mary. One stands next to the gate: in one hand is a number of sets of plastic rosary beads, in the other a pile of leaflets. He hands me one. It offers me help with accommodation, financial assistance, babysitting, maternity clothes and help with a referral for fostering/adoption counselling. It warns of the physical complications of abortion, including breast cancer. Possible psychological complications could include “alcohol and drug abuse; eating disorders”, as well as “damage to maternal instinct and to bonding process with any other children you have”. The man at the gate tells me he is a "stand-in" for someone, but refuses to answer further questions; the other is here because it is his "mission". They are members of The Good Counsel Network, an anti-abortion group that often pays its protestors and runs an internship programme for those wishing to learn how to become active in the pro-life campaign.
One woman, who was 19 when she had her termination, told me that the protestors had terrified her. She wishes to remain anonymous. “My mum and dad took me to the clinic. We parked down the road, as we noticed there were about eight protestors outside with a table full of horrible pictures of ripped-apart foetuses, with no legs or arms – they looked likes fakes. They had signs that said ‘abortion is murder’. Another girl went in and the protestors were shouting things at her, so I was really scared to go in at this point,” she said.
“My mum phoned the clinic and asked if someone would come out to accompany us inside. One of the receptionists came to the car and held my hand to take me inside. As we were passing the protestors, one of them grabbed my arm and asked me, ‘Do you really want to do this?’ This was a really difficult decision for me to make and the last thing I needed was a random stranger judging me and questioning my choices.”
Still clearly distressed, she went on: “I’m very angry that these people are allowed to target vulnerable women at what can be one of the lowest points in their life. It's cruel. They are targeting the wrong people – they should be stood outside parliament, instead of targeting women who are hurting enough as it is. These people aren’t pro-life – they are anti-women. At 19, I would not be able to look after a child and support one emotionally or financially. If I changed my mind, would they have helped me take care of my child? I don’t think so. I was upset and I was being judged by strangers – strangers who thought it was OK to call me a murderer.”
They are targeting the wrong people – they should be stood outside parliament, instead of targeting women who are hurting enough as it is. These people aren’t pro-life – they are anti-women
The presence of protestors outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Northern Ireland – where most abortions are banned – has led to the establishment of escorts wearing CCTV cameras and equipped with walkie talkies. Emma Campbell is one such escort. “It’s not really about saving babies. These people are just trying to purposefully shame women. They shout things like, ‘We have christened your baby Bernadette’ or ‘You are now the mother of a dead baby’. I have witnessed this many, many times,” she says. “They will say it even if they know the woman has already had treatment. It’s just public shaming. The women we help are extremely grateful and have told me, ‘I couldn’t have dealt with that on my own’ and ‘I am so glad you were talking, so that I couldn’t hear them’.”
Ruth Rawlins is the London organiser for Abort67. She says: “The abortion lobby will talk about everything except what actually happens. We want to show the reality of what’s being taken out – it’s a human life getting taken. We show the images the abortion providers don’t want the public to see. We believe women should know all the facts. There are a lot of lies on how we conduct ourselves. We don’t purposefully rock up outside schools to show these images.”
A spokeswoman for Abortion Rights, the pro-choice campaign group established in 1936, says, simply, that it is harassment. “It’s a protest out of place. They are harassing women who are exercising their moral right – pro-choice is a neutral position; it’s not up for debate, it’s been the law since 1967. It should be them against the government, them against the law – we are just defending the status quo. Somebody should be asking the question of the police and the politicians – why is this OK? These protestors don’t actually deter anyone. They are upsetting people, making them go home and then just come back at a later date. They are a barrier to people’s health and they should not be allowed there.”
I ask Stephenson about funding – Abort67 clearly has money. He denies claims that he receives finance from America, saying that donations are from friends, family and cause sympathisers. But he readily admits that he receives advice on strategy and tactics and seeks the counsel of Gregg Cunningham, the director of the American Center for Bio-Ethical Reform and a former member of the Reagan administration, who encouraged Abort67’s use of graphic images. Cunningham was the guest speaker at the group’s recent pro-life training academy, which "equips people to feel confident in the pro-life position and gives them strategies for protest".
Stephenson, who, along with Rawlins, is a salaried activist, says Abort67’s plan is for their protest to expand across the country. “We want the pro-life movement to be professional. We want to expand geographically and in terms of frequency.”
Last month, Marie Stopes celebrated the 90th anniversary of the founding of the first reproductive healthcare clinic in London. Vix Proctor, the organisation’s head of marketing, said: “Women need to confidence to manage their own bodies and lifestyle and, for that, we will always be here. Their tactics are changing, but ours are too, and we are making sure our services are available more locally, going into centres which aren’t purely sexual-health centres. These protestors are not going to beat us down and we are not going to close.”