In ‘Debating Abortion on Campus,’ published in the 2016(3) issue of Conscience, Jon O’Brien eloquently made the case for why prochoice advocates should not shy away from debate, documenting the censorship of the antichoice opposition that has crept onto campuses across the United Kingdom and the United States. “In a healthy society, people aren’t afraid to discuss things. We must never be afraid of the battle of ideas,” he wrote. Indeed. So why should women accessing abortion services be an exception, shielded from the ideas and opinions of protesters on the street outside? Should they, as the respected US lawyer and social critic Wendy Kaminer has argued, have to accept that “feeling intimidated, being confronted and ‘stressed’ by people who oppose abortion rights, is sometimes the price of free speech”?
In the UK, abortion clinic demonstrations have been on the rise. While they are still a far cry from the scenes that can be witnessed in the United States, they have spread in recent years to the point that many clinics now routinely experience some form of demonstration at their doors. Generally, protests at the clinics operated by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) involve up to eight people, often with large banners of dismembered fetuses, pressing literature into women’s hands along with a small plastic fetus. There are no crowds, and usually access is not obstructed.
Nonetheless, abortion clinic protesters can significantly affect potential patients’ sense of security when seeking care. As an increasing number of women have elected early medication abortion, BPAS has moved our services to smaller, more convenient premises closer to where women live their daily lives. (While we may have been pioneers when it came to the 1967 Abortion Act, in 2017 the law still doesn’t permit home use, so women must sometimes make multiple trips to a clinic.)
But for clinics now located on small residential streets, even a handful of protesters appears a crowd, leaving women with no way into the clinic without passing by and risking a confrontation. Increasingly, these protesters also wear cameras around their necks. They claim that the purpose is to protect themselves from false claims of harassment, but for women visiting the clinic the unsettling fact is this: They are being filmed.
A recent undercover investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches program, ‘Undercover: Britain’s Abortion Extremists,’ turned the cameras back on these people. The documentary reveals an additional purpose to their activities and calls into question the term “protester” as the appropriate way to describe them. The program makes it clear that these people are not just protesters. They seek to insert themselves, unsolicited, into patients’ pathway to care. They also bombard women seeking accurate medical information with factually inaccurate information designed to deter them from making their own decisions about their own pregnancies.
Few may be surprised by the program’s revelations that women are routinely and erroneously told by such protesters that abortion causes breast cancer, infertility, sexual abuse, inability to bond with future children or “postabortion syndrome.” But some of the exchanges with women felt particularly pernicious—like this one between a woman and a protester, recounted by the protester herself, Justyna, to what she thought was a colleague.
“She [the woman who had just gone into a clinic] said she is not well at all and that she has heart problems. She said the doctors had advised her [to have an] abortion. I said, ‘You know you can take the baby out even earlier. The babies can be treated even at 23 weeks outside the womb.’” Justyna, who acknowledged the baby may well not survive, reportedly advised her and another woman attending for medical reasons that their doctor could be wrong, that a second opinion should be sought. When confronted on camera to justify why she felt it was appropriate to tell women that they faced a risk of breast cancer or that their doctors might have misled them, she replied: “It’s about freedom of speech. You can, in a free society, express your views.” Ironically, when asked why she had made the decision to stand outside clinics, she replied to the reporter: “You are harassing me.”
To be clear, BPAS does not believe women seeking abortion services should be subject to questioning as they access confidential medical advice and treatment, or followed down the street and quizzed on their private decision-making in the name of freedom of speech. The space outside a clinic is not a political theater. It is not a public square. Women seeking abortion advice and care are not students arriving on campus to debate the rights and wrongs of abortion. They are not members of Parliament arriving at the House of Commons to vote on a bill to lower the time limit. But just as importantly, this is not a debate—and we denigrate the word itself by suggesting that the right to stand outside a clinic and lie to women is part and parcel of the right to freedom of speech and of the wonderful free exchange of ideas that shapes the democratic process. These are not “ideas,” they are fantasies and deceptions, targeted at a particular patient group as they attempt to access confidential, well-regulated healthcare.
The Channel 4 program also exposes the links between those who harass women outside clinics in the UK and the “crisis pregnancy centers” that have simultaneously proliferated in recent years. Crisis pregnancy centers, posing as full-service women’s health clinics, peddle misinformation about abortion to the unfortunate women who step through their doors seeking abortion care. One Catholic organization in particular, the Good Counsel Network, pays protesters to campaign outside health clinics that provide abortion, and also runs a crisis pregnancy center in central London, to which clinic activists try to divert women. The Dispatches program then documents the way in which the National Health Service, Britain’s trusted healthcare system, has pointed women towards these centers in its official literature.
These centers absolutely have the right to exist. But just as protesters have no right to insert themselves into a patient’s private care pathway, these centers have no right to use fraudulent means to draw in women seeking evidence-based, impartial advice. Notably, as retrograde as these activists are when it comes to women’s rights and autonomy, they are increasingly savvy when it comes to targeting women on the internet. Women typing “abortion London” into Google have found the top result to be a crisis pregnancy center known to tell women that abortion will make them infertile and more likely to abuse any children they do go on to have. These listings do not happen by chance, but rather are paid advertisements. Upon clicking said link to the center’s website, the visitor is encouraged to make an appointment. But the website’s vague language would make any visitors struggle to ascertain the philosophy of the organization, or understand that they are not booking advice and care with an organization that provides abortion care.
An undercover investigation by the Daily Telegraph revealed some of the centers’ insidious messaging. “When you have a child you have natural maternal instincts towards the child and there are also natural barriers that surround the child that you don’t cross,” one of their counsellors was recorded as saying. “In order to have an abortion you have to break through both those sets of barriers, basically, and some people can find it hard to put them back in place.”
Similar suggestions were also made in a recent secret investigation by the Times of a center run by the same Good Counsel Network in Dublin, where the situation is made even more wretched by the restrictions the government already imposes on access to information about abortion. “Now, the first side-effect is death,” said the counsellor, before proceeding to tell her client, “If you’re going to have children in the future, it’ll all rest on this. If you get breast cancer, you’re a beautiful 26-year-old, quite intelligent, your whole life ahead of you, if you make a mistake, you know.”
It is not normal to expect any patient, regardless of the treatment she seeks, to deal with protesters as she accesses healthcare.
You could argue, “Who would believe such mumbo jumbo? Buck up, pregnant women seeking abortions, surely you can see through this bare-faced nonsense?” But however much stamina, quick thinking and resolve we think pregnant women should display, we must also accept that they are patients. By necessity, all patients are vulnerable because they must rely on the assistance of others to resolve their healthcare issue. Pregnant women—whether seeking abortion or maternity services—are no different. This is what makes the manner in which they are preyed on and subjected to such lies and deception so vicious.
It is a great irony that those driven by their faith to campaign against abortion are prepared to deceive women in one of their greatest moments of need in order to achieve their goals. It is not wrong to oppose abortion. It is not wrong to run an antiabortion crisis pregnancy center, but those who do so should feel a deep moral obligation to be absolutely transparent about what they believe and clear about the services they offer. Above all, they have no business peddling untruths.
At BPAS, we respect the right of our adversaries to campaign against the services we provide, to state openly that what we do is wrong, even to describe it as murder. We believe profoundly in people’s right to protest and their right to challenge our abortion laws (indeed, we too are campaigning against them right now—we think they are not good enough). We relish taking on those opposed to what we do, on whatever platform is on offer and explaining why we provide women with the services we do, in good conscience. We ask simply for honesty in their dealings with women, and transparency in the way they campaign against women’s choice.
In many respects, the upsurge in clinic protests and the tactics employed by crisis pregnancy centers speak to the weakness of the antiabortion movement. In the UK, they have all but abandoned the idea of a full frontal assault on the 1967 Abortion Act, preferring instead to chip away at targeted issues that they know cause public unease, such as sex-selective abortion. Yet even on this they have failed thus far.
Designed to cause distress to patients, targeting of women outside abortion clinics with misinformation is the work of cowards. The deception of women by crisis pregnancy centers or on the steps of clinics should not be worthy of those who invoke the name of God in their mission. We appeal to all those involved in this work to have the courage of their convictions. To try to change hearts and minds across the UK through the expression of their belief in the many places and spaces open to them—but to stop confusing their faith with facts.
We live in a society where there is a plethora of regulations as to who can congregate where and when, what we can say to whom and how, and where we must accept that competing rights need to be balanced. In the UK, we have accepted the regulation of street fundraisers for NGOs—or “chuggers” (short for “charity muggers”), who must stand a certain distance from shop entrances and may never follow a target more than three steps. A phone call from a company selling products can now effectively count as harassment, an invasion into the personal and private space of your home, and result in a criminal prosecution. In the UK, we allow restrictions on campaigning outside polling stations on election day so that voters are not intimidated. And of course, no one is allowed an unauthorized assembly in Parliament Square, the seat of democracy. Yet pregnant women are deemed tough enough to withstand approaches by protesters while the same standards are not applied to MPs, voters and people resting safely in their own homes. Why?
Some opposition to buffer zones, leaving aside that of those who wish to harass women outside clinics, may rest on concerns that suggesting women are scared and intimidated by protesters is the equivalent of testifying to their weakness. The argument is that the drive to normalize abortion may be thwarted by demands for its own special protection that further singles out abortion care. Moreover, some argue that really any campaigning activity should be focused squarely on decriminalization—removing the legal barriers to abortion and regulating it like any other healthcare procedure.
This argument rests on a false dichotomy: These advocacy efforts are not mutually exclusive or contradictory. It is not normal to expect any patient, regardless of the treatment she seeks, to deal with protesters as she accesses healthcare. At the same time, abortion must be decriminalized: The law should play no role in determining a woman’s personal decision about her own pregnancy. Indeed, its sole role should be to ensure that no one else is allowed to muscle in on it either.