It is an insult for the March for Life to pretend they care for women or for their children
At abortion clinics in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leicester and Cardiff, patients are being intimidated and harassed by a group of people huddled on the pavement opposite. They wear a strange garb of high-vis jackets, dog-collars and lurid signs hanging round their necks. They are there to stop women from obtaining abortions. Visiting women are called murderers, have plastic models of foetuses thrust into their hands and are offered leaflets containing false claims about medical links between abortion and breast cancer, eating disorders and infertility.
This Saturday, the same protest groups, strange conglomerates of misogyny, religious zealotry and misfiring compassion, will march on Westminster to again demand that one of women’s most fundamental human rights be taken away from them. My orgnaisation, Abortion Rights UK, will be marching against them.
Anti-abortion protestors have existed in the UK since abortion was made legal in 1967. In recent years, though, their behaviours have become more extreme, as viscerally anti-woman, US-funded campaigns have taken hold. The funders, extreme right-wing groups which also campaign against homosexuality and advocate for a return to ‘traditional’ gender roles, have imported with their money a guerrilla approach to abortion. Nothing is off-limits; not the emotions, mental health, financial security or even the lives of the women whose bodies they seek to control.
At Abortion Rights, we try to campaign on a positive platform: we make the case for abortion by talking about the positive health and life outcomes for women and their families in countries where it is legal. We also do not believe that all people who are anti-abortion are monsters, although anti-abortion groups frequently air their beliefs that we are murderers.
But in the era of Trump and on the eve of the so-called ‘March for Life’, we also want the public to see anti-abortion campaigns for what they are. They are not benevolent groups with slightly eccentric or outdated values. In fact, we know that prominent members of some anti-choice groups have links to far-right nationalist parties. These activists pursue campaigning tactics designed to shame, misinform and manipulate women, and ultimately advocate a policy which would result in the deaths of women in this country, as it has all over the world.
Anti-abortion activism is not ‘pro-life’. Where abortion is not legal, women are at risk of death. Some, like Dr Savita Halappavanar in Ireland, die because doctors, fearing prosecution, are too scared to give urgent medical treatment in case the foetus is harmed. Many more die because, in desperation, they procure unsafe ‘backstreet’ abortions. When medical complications begin, many women are too scared of the legal repercussions to call a doctor. It is estimated that 47,000 women die every year from illegal abortions in countries where abortion is severely restricted.
Anti-abortion activism is not ‘pro-women’. Abortion access is one of the single most important factors in women’s emancipation over the last century. One in three women in Britain will have one in their lifetime. Being able to choose when they have children, or whether to have children at all, has allowed women to plan successful careers, become financially independent of their husbands and fathers, and to challenge damaging stereotypes about a woman’s place being in the kitchen. A reversal in abortion law would have devastating impacts for gender equality across the board.
Anti-abortion campaigners have long tried to argue that their tactics of misinforming, scaring and guilt-tripping women are part of a wider ‘compassionate’ plan to ensure women do not make a choice they could later regret. This is not how women view the protests. The idea that they are incapable of making their own decisions about their bodies and need a law to protect them from the ‘trauma’ of abortion is deeply sexist. Of course it is possible for women to find abortion traumatic – over the years, I have met many women who have. But, like giving birth, women can find having an abortion traumatic and still be glad they chose to do it. A 2015 survey in the US found that 95% of women do not regret their abortions.
Anti-abortion activism is not ‘pro-family’. Research consistently reveals that the majority of women who obtain abortions already have children. Women often abort because they feel that they cannot afford another child, or that having another child would jeopardise the wellbeing of the children they have already. Though we strongly believe that no one should have to abort for financial reasons, the truth is that women’s families are often at the forefront of their choices.
Anti-abortion activism is not ‘pro-God’. Many people of all faiths believe that the right to choose is essential to a woman’s health, happiness and dignity. Our friends at Christians for Choice understand this “From the moment she makes her decision, every step of the way should be planned and managed as safely as any other medical procedure. To have to encounter harassment and intimidation is clearly dangerous and unacceptable. Cloaking the targeting of abortion clinics as a Christian act is deeply wrong. The victimisation of any person accessing any other medical treatment would be publicly condemned, and so should the activity of these groups. Ultimately it is not with line with overarching Christian values
Anti-abortion laws hit vulnerable women hardest. Pregnancy and forced motherhood place a particular strain on those who are poor, physically or mentally ill, or otherwise unready to support a child. For young women from conservative communities, having a child outside of wedlock can be isolating and shameful. For other women, mental health issues like eating disorders or OCD make pregnancy itself emotionally unviable. For victims of rape or domestic abuse, being forced to carry their abuser’s child can feel traumatic and demeaning: the ultimate denial of bodily agency. Unsurprisingly, the anti-abortion movement keeps quiet about the mental health impacts on these women.
But for all women, being forced to carry and give birth to a child they did not want is a deprivation of their human right to make their own life and healthcare decisions. Suggesting that women should subjugate their bodies, their pain and often their emotional stability to someone else’s beliefs is inhumane and basely sexist.
Why should you care? Since the Abortion Act 1967, there have been two serious attempts to severely restrict or recriminalize abortion in England and Wales. There have been many more attempts to amend the current law to reduce the time limit available to women seeking abortion. Some measures have come very close to seriously damaging abortion access in this country, and they’ve only been stopped because of the work of campaigns like ours, Abortion Rights UK.
The UK is a pro-choice country. Polling consistently shows that two thirds of people are in favour of legal abortion; happily, that figure looks likely to increase as expectations of gender equality become commonplace. Yet our campaign still exists, because we are not in a position to laugh at anti-abortionists or shrug them off. The alacrity of abortion law retrogression under Trump proves the fragility of women’s rights in any country where this rhetoric is allowed to flourish. We must continue to expose anti-choice activism as misogynistic in its premise and devastating in its impact.
If we sound angry, it’s because we are. We are tired and sad that our medical rights, though enshrined in law for decades, are still viewed as fair game for a misogynistic few. We are frightened by the fake news spread by world leaders to discredit our cause, and the lies deployed against women every day in violent attempts to manipulate their choices.
We are scared for women in Georgia, who now live under laws that make abortion illegal from before the point that most women realise they are pregnant. We are angry for the women in Northern Ireland, whose rights have for years been passed over by Westminster. We mourn the thousands of women who will die this week from having to abort secretly and alone.
So we march, too.