I'm outside a Marie Stopes abortion clinic on a Saturday morning, watching two groups face off across a patch of muddy grass. One group carries a large picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe; members clutch rosary beads as they pray, sing hymns, and raise their eyes and hands to the sky. Lining the pavement are laminated photographs of human embryos in lurid colour, alternating with cutesy images of toddlers and rubber sculptures of fetuses. People are approaching those entering and exiting the clinic with leaflets that state, "You will later regret it."
This isn't Bible Belt America. I'm on a quiet, leafy street in Ealing, west London. Welcome to the new face of British anti-abortion activism.
This particular group are the Helpers of God's Precious Infants, a religious group that protests outside the clinic up to six days a week. Today's 'vigil,' organized for Advent, is a particularly large: Several dozen people have congregated to protest against women's right to reproductive choice. Most of those gathered are middle-aged or older; at least half of the congregation are male.
The smaller group is Sister Supporter, a local grassroots campaign that formed in order to demonstrate against the presence of this anti-choice group outside their clinic. Their members are mostly young, and mostly female. The contrast between the two groups is marked.
Armed with a megaphone and banners ("Toot If You Support Women's Right to Decide," and "No more vigils! Ealing needs a buffer zone"), Sister Supporter are working to gain signatures from members of the public, in support of British Pregnancy Advisory Service's national Back Off campaign for protest-free buffer zones outside clinics.
"I grew up in Ealing and was always uncomfortable about the anti-abortion vigils outside the clinic," says Sister Supporter organizer Anna Veglio-White. "When I returned from university this summer, I took up running and I noticed that they were now outside the clinic five or six days a week without fail. I saw how they approached women and used pictures and models of fetuses to try and discourage them from going inside. I felt that there needed to be a consistent and concentrated effort to oppose them. All the local people I know are just as unhappy about the vigils, so I decided to harness their outrage to try and do something."
One Sister Supporter member, Wendy, is a 69-year old who had worked as a family planning nurse for thirty years. She still remembers the horror of the backstreet abortions that took place prior to Britain's legalization of abortion in 1967. "I know how hard it is to make the decision to get an abortion," she tells me. "It shouldn't be made any harder.'
Another Ealing resident, Lindsay, 29, also has personal reasons for being part of Sister Supporter's efforts. "I'm originally from Northern Ireland, where abortion by choice is still illegal. I don't take the reproductive options women have in this country for granted. I know all about the women from the Republic [of Ireland] and from Northern Ireland with unwanted pregnancies who have to travel to England for a safe, legal abortion. The thought of them making this difficult journey only to be confronted with these groups outside the clinic is very distressing."
Back Off is a campaign for legislation that would protect women from being approached by protestors outside clinics. Following the example set by other countries in which similar laws are successfully enforced, they propose the establishment of legal buffer zones in which anti-abortion activism cannot take place. Current harassment laws here in the UK are clearly not working as they should. A public order offence case against the notoriously hardline anti-choice group Abort67 went to trial, but collapsed due to lack of evidence. The organization gained infamy thanks to its tactics of filming visitors to clinics and placing grisly images of late-term foetuses outside its doors.
"We launched Back Off a year ago in response to escalating anti-abortion activity outside clinics that needed addressing," BPAS spokesperson Katherine O'Brien explains. "Police kept telling us they were unable to act and that there was nothing they could do. When I started working at BPAS, these protests were generally just a couple of nuns praying, but the scale and nature of the protests have really changed over the last few years. Large groups are now outside clinics daily, holding graphic banners intended to intimidate women and discourage them from accessing services.
"The appearance of cameras on tripods or worn on chests [of anti-abortion protesters] were a line drawn in the sand for BPAS. Abortion is a private procedure that many women might not want shared. It's a personal decision and a legal service that women should be able to access in peace."
Genevieve Edwards of Marie Stopes UK echoes this, and adds that though not all protestors are the same, "we do telephone women the day beforehand to warn them if there is a particularly large protest planned, so we can tell them the least obtrusive route into the clinic and offer to escort them inside."
It's clear that the last few years have seen a seismic shift in the UK's anti-choice landscape. Given that only a tiny 7 percent of the British public are against abortion (down from 12 percent, ten years ago), what has caused this increase in protests outside abortion clinics?
The growth of Britain's various anti-choice groups is linked, at least in part, to the influence of American culture, religious ideology, and activism. Dr Graeme Hayes, co-author with Dr Pam Lowe of a study on abortion debates in public spaces, explains: "American groups are very important in this re-emergence of anti-abortion activism. Both Abort67 and 40 Days for Life are affiliated to networks which originate in the USA. The 40 Days for Life campaign seems to have had the effect of reinvigorating Catholic activists who had been carrying out vigils outside abortion clinics for years, but with decreasing returns; the campaign (now in its fourth year) has given them a renewed sense of purpose and strategy."
"Some of the groups in the UK are trying to copy successful strategies used in the US to close clinics," Dr Lowe adds. "It's not only clinics or personnel subject to demonstrations: Anti-abortion activists also put pressure on landlords and/or other tenants of the buildings. Though it's unlikely that we'll see more extreme acts of anti-abortion activism (protests outside the houses of doctors, arson at clinics, etc.), the links between the US and UK anti-abortion activists contribute to a chilling environment for the provision of services."
A recent study by Aston University proved that anti-abortion activists outside sexual health clinics are, unsurprisingly, 'a source of distress' for those accessing abortion services. More surprisingly, the study showed that the mere presence of protesters are as upsetting as their actions: Both heckling and prayer vigils can (and often do) have a traumatic effect. But what about well-intentioned counter-demonstrations, organized by groups like Sister Supporter, Reclaim Rosslyn Road, or Feminist Fightback?
O'Brien explains that BPAS's official position on pro-choice activism is supportive— so long as it takes place when clinics are shut. "If a clinic is open and there are both protestors and counter-protestors outside, that can be intimidating for women. They don't know who's there to support them, and who's there to harass." Marie Stopes UK, who fully support the Back Off campaign, also echo this concern.
Sister Supporter say they are "very sensitive" to this: 'We don't want to add to the problem." Veglio-White says. "The anti-choice protestors tend to be retired, with plenty of free time; we can't match their protests and nor would we want to.
"But they've been going unopposed for years, and are only getting worse— we can't just sit back."