‘Pro-life extremists’ are confronting women in London as they go for an abortion, so I spent the day with them
‘I might not have a uterus but I’ve been in the womb’
If you saw Channel 4’s recent Dispatches documentary on pro-life protestors in London, you saw Abort67. Branded as “Britain’s abortion extremists” the group were captured by hidden cameras as they “campaigned” outside GP surgeries to convince women not to have an abortion. Last Friday I spent the day with them, freezing on a street corner in Blackfriars – and they’re as bizarre as you’d expect.
I expected them to be a group of goggle-eyed, vein-popping Christian fundamentalists, telling me that we were all going to burn in hell. It wasn’t exactly like that, but it was still pretty fucking weird. The team was small, only around four or five people, and I was surprised by how amateurish the set-up was. They had to stand in front of their graphic poster to stop it falling over on them and they wore cameras strapped to their chest for “protection” which reeked of tinfoil-hat paranoia. Their leader, Ruth, was late, so I was greeted by Dave.
For a pro-life nutter, Dave was surprisingly friendly. He was the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind spending an afternoon with, but still, not the kind of bloke you’d go to the pub with. His camera was strapped over a festive blue fleece. He went to Oxford, where he was a member of the a cappella society. He got involved with the protests through his friend Christian, a pro-life activist in Ireland.
Dave seems like, quintessentially, a nice guy. Talking to him while standing in front of a bloody, eight week old foetus is disconcerting.
“Many people don’t want to look at it, which is understandable”, he says. “I don’t want to look at it. It’s not a nice thing to look at. People do get upset, sometimes they say you shouldn’t be showing this. Because we want to show people the truth and this is the truth.”
The group stand outside clinics with banners of aborted babies, and try to speak to vulnerable women (to anyone, really) as they walk past. In theory it’s not unlike the protests outside clinics in America by fundamentalists, or the ugly scenes I’d witnessed outside Marie Stopes while growing up in Belfast, where abortion remains illegal. It makes sense that Abort67 is American in style and opinion. Their group was set up and funded by 69-year-old American Gregg Cunningham, a former Republican politician.
Cunningham admits his shock tactics are meant to upset vulnerable women, because it might convince them to change their mind. He’s also the director of The Genocide Awareness Project, which compares abortion to The Holocaust and displays the same graphic photos of aborted foetuses on American college campuses. He’s compared abortion to “child sacrifice” and even accused people who work in clinics as “witches or satanists”.
Dave tells me a story about a woman they were talking to who didn’t want to have an abortion, but who was being forced to by her partner. “What we hear from the press time and time again is that abortion is a woman’s right, that it’s her choice. What we hear time and time again is that they have no choice. They’ve got to do this because of family or partner pressure. If people think this is liberating women it’s a total lie.”
The irony isn’t lost on either of us. I ask him how he feels doing this work as someone who will never experience an unwanted pregnancy. While we’re talking about it, a man walks past, takes a leaflet and rips it in half, leaving it on the ground and walking off. Everyone pretends not to have noticed. Happens all the time, Dave explains.
He tells me: “One woman said to me ‘if you had a uterus I might be more comfortable with the conversation’. I told her I don’t have a uterus but I’ve been in the womb. And this baby was killed in the womb. And it doesn’t matter actually whether I’m a man. I’m not here to justify myself, I’m here to speak for the voiceless. Yes you can say I can’t empathise and that’s true, but my wife has kids.”
Dave shows me the pro-life literature, which is “all based on science and statistics”. “There’s not really any moral language in here, there’s not any religious language. It’s not a religious group. We’re a human rights group and we seek to just show the scientific, medical truth of what’s going on.”
I’ll be honest, he was sweet. He wasn’t the apoplectic, spluttering, passive-aggressive pro-lifer you’d expect. I was even starting to relax, when Ruth, the person I’d emailed about coming along to their protest, shows up. Ruth is exactly the kind of apoplectic, spluttering, passive-aggressive pro-lifer you’d expect. While the others do this when they can, Ruth is a full time protestor. She’s in it for the long haul. Talking to her feels like arguing a drunk, aggy girl in the smoking area of a pub; she’s laughing but I’m half-expecting to get glassed.
She wants to show me the Dispatches video, show how they lied. In the days that follow she emails me with a list of their own “evidence” videos. She asks how people I know responded to it and I tell her they were surprised. “Surprised by how they lied you mean?” she snaps. Sometimes I ask a question, like why they’re doing it in London, and she laughs at me like I’m a small child who’s said something adorable but stupid. “Abortion happens in London”, she says. She asks if I have kids. She asks whether I believe them, whether I believe them, whether I believe them.
I’ve never been pregnant.
I’ve never had the experience of going to an abortion clinic. I’ve never had to tell a boyfriend, my parents, my friends that I’m not ready to be a mum. But I was cold, and freaked out, and completely unable to escape her topics of conversation. Which made me wonder how I’d feel if I was in that vulnerable position. Eagerly, Ruth tells me about studies which link abortion to breast cancer. “What do you think about these lies!” she wants to know, wide-eyed and laughing in a slightly manic way. “I really just want to talk about your work”, I tell her, but she interrupts. “What did you think about their lies?” Uneasily, I apologise if I’ve made her in any way uncomfortable and she steps back, hands out and shrugging and half-laughing.
“No I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m just asking questions”.
They don’t speak to one woman the whole time they’re there. Apart from the guy who ripped up their posters, most passing women or children (they’re not concerned about the posters upsetting kids, by the way), ignore them in a studied, embarrassed way. The only people they recruit are two pissed guys, on their way to the nearby pub for a stag do. “If I was pregnant I’d never get rid of it” they laugh.
Dave asks them to get involved, and tells them they’re doing abortions in the GP clinic across the road. “Do you want us to break the windows?” They ask. They talk about how they could never live with themselves if they were with a woman who’d had an abortion, unless she was raped. They sign up to the mailing list immediately, then head into the pub.
While it might be something people are used to in Ireland or America, Londoners were understandably shocked by the campaigns happening on their streets, in a major city where women’s choice was regulated and protected by the law. Abi Fitzgibbon is head of advocacy and campaigns at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the group that runs the abortion clinic out of Blackfriars. The move to GP clinics is supposed to make abortion more accessible to women, rather than having it in hospitals. She says that in England there’s been a “real upsurge” of the Abort67 style protests.
“It’s what you see in Northern Ireland and America but just at a lower level – but still a really problematic level. But it’s very difficult to actually tackle it.
“Some of our staff say they have to spend the first few minutes of the appointment calming women down and persuading them they can just ignore what the people outside said. It’s not the creepy man outside; he doesn’t know you and he doesn’t know your situation so just ignore him. Some women have been incredibly upset by it, some of them just try to ignore it. I guess everyone tries to deal with it differently but they all say it’s a problem.”
Abi explains the obvious – that while these groups feel like they’re offering help, they’re nothing more than an upsetting hindrance to pregnant women. It’s becoming so prolific that the BPAS have started a campaign with women (and men’s) groups to try to persuade the Home Office to take notice. Recently Labour have spoken out in favour of the US style buffer zones the BPAS are calling for. Abi said: “We’d find it so problematic if these hardline religious groups were targeting, HIV clinics, for instance. It’s not just that they upset women, they tell them lies, medical lies.
“They say abortion is gonna give them breast cancer, or, like in Dispatches, one activist says to a woman ‘maybe your doctor is wrong’. That kind of stuff is dangerous and we wouldn’t accept it if any other marginalised group was being targeted, but because it’s women it’s fine.”
Before I leave I talk to another of the protestors (Ruth in tow, still filming), a woman who’d had an abortion and struggled with it for years, with depression and poor mental health, before being “saved”. She’s soft spoken and wide eyed and earnest and I feel bad about laughing internally at them for the whole day. People like this woman don’t need to be standing on street corners in London, convincing other vulnerable girls that they’re about to ruin their lives. They deserve help, but not this kind of help.
Afterwards, half-frozen and on edge, I went to the pub across the street where Dave claims he was once thrown out of, and asked the barman if I could speak to him about the odd scenario, having to work across the road from them. The same guys who had signed up to be pro-life activists had started their stag do in earnest and were three or four pints deep. They cheered at me from across the bar.
“It wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t so fucking weird,” he says.
And he’s right. I expected to leave angry and full of righteous energy, but they were so bizarre that I just felt spaced out. It still wasn’t clear why they were doing it, to what end. They weren’t the rabid, hateful Westboro Baptist Church, they were just a small amorphous group of weirdos that as far as I could see, nobody were really taking seriously. But that doesn’t make what they’re doing any less harmful or upsetting to vulnerable women, and it still sets a dangerous precedent for English women’s right to choose.