Why abortion clinics won’t be building barricades

The chief executive of the UK's largest specialist abortion provider explains why she and her colleagues are not scared by the UK LifeLeague's 'name and shame' antics.

Ann Furedi

Topics Politics

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At the end of April 2006, a small group of anti-abortion extremists announced their intention to send billboard lorries, of the kind usually used to advertise car insurance, around the country displaying anti-abortion material. A fleet of six trucks is planned for ‘Operation Truth Truck’.

Speaking on Sky News, the UK LifeLeague’s main spokesman, Reverend James Dowson, told us of his plan to stop at abortion clinics along the way. Scary stuff, huh?

Not really. Dowson is good at convincing journalists to report his stunts in a way that creates the impression that he is placing abortion providers under pressure. However, to date Dowson has been big on rhetoric and small on action. In recent years, several Dowson initiatives have been announced to, and reported by, the press. We read about his plans to make citizens’ arrests on abortion doctors, to protest at the homes of abortion providers, and to organise mass protests to close down clinics. Nothing happened.

Dowson’s current newsletter, kindly sent to my home, reports that in the month before Christmas, UK LifeLeague staged vigils ‘outside abortion mills right across the UK’. This was news to us at bpas. We run 18 clinics and more than 30 referral centres and perform a quarter of Britain’s abortions – but if the protests took place at all, they seem to have passed us by.

A ‘name and shame’ campaign to expose and harass abortion providers has been tried but with little impact. The principal idea of this initiative is that the personal details of abortion providers are made public, which is intended to expose them to the anger and disgust of the community. This is potentially an effective activity for a small group of activists with little support because it doesn’t need many people to carry it out. However, it relies on some mistaken assumptions.

The first is that abortion providers are ashamed of what they do and so are concerned to remain anonymous. This is not true. It is impossible to ‘name and shame’ most of us because we are ‘out and proud’ of the contribution we make to reproductive healthcare. Our personal details are already in the public domain – easily obtainable to anyone from Companies’ House, electoral registers, lists of Charity Trustees and telephone directories. So when bpas managers and Trustees recently received a mailshot at their homes there was irritation, but no terror.

The second false assumption is that our communities will despise us for what we do. Following TV or radio appearances, I have faced a range of responses, from curiosity to support – but never hostility. My only physical assault has been a hug from a stranger in a supermarket, grateful to bpas for speaking out.

In today’s news-hungry environment, it is easy to get your five minutes of fame. What is reported by journalists rapidly acquires the status of truth, whether or not it has actually happened. The activities and influence of the anti-choice lobby are particularly exaggerated because commentators look to the USA for trends that will appear in the UK. In the USA, elements of the anti-choice movement are a real and present danger. Doctors have been shot; laws curtailing access to abortion have been passed. In Britain, the anti-choice movement has never wielded comparable influence.

Here, public policy and public opinion clearly supports legal abortion, particularly in early pregnancy. The issue is less politicised, less polarised and those fundamentally opposed to abortion have a tiny and marginal audience. It may be true that groups such as Dowson’s have links with extreme US groups; much of the material distributed by UK LifeLeague originates in the USA. But this demonstrates UK LifeLeague’s weakness and reliance on overseas resources rather than a threatening alliance. US groups do have substantial funds and extensive overseas programmes, but these are focused on Catholic countries in Europe, Africa and Central America, and it is unlikely that Britain is a high priority.

Abortion is a rich and interesting subject for the media. Activities opposing abortion are particularly attractive as space fillers on a slow news day. Anti-choice journalists like to write stories about the strength of the anti-choice movement because it allows them to promote their cause. Some pro-choice journalists like to write stories about the strength of the anti-choice movement because they believe it reminds people they should not take legal abortion for granted.

But exaggerating the strength of zealots like Dowson is more damaging than the stunts he pulls. It creates the impression that abortion services are controversial and ‘under siege’ when, in reality, the opposite is true. Today, more women are able to get safe, legal abortions paid for by the NHS than ever before. Providers fret far more about how to make services more accessible than they do about anti-abortion activity. Women need to know that when they come to a bpas clinic they’ll be met by confident, caring staff and not a crowd of protesters.

Panics about small groups of fanatics take people’s attention away from the real threats to abortion in Britain: the shortage of abortion doctors, new regulations that needlessly increase the cost of care with no discernible benefit, and political conservatism that blocks changes that could make abortion even easier. If UK LifeLeague takes its ‘Truth Trucks’ out, they may learn a few important lessons: how few people support it and how marginal its influence is. Hopefully, the media will get the same message.

Ann Furedi is chief executive of bpas.

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Topics Politics


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