40 Days for Life prayer vigil and counter protest

Yesterday evening I headed into central London and to Bedford Square to observe the two very different protests taking place outside the BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) clinic situated there.  BPAS is the UK’s largest independent provider of abortion care and offers a multitude of services including pregnancy testing, counselling, STI screening, contraception, sterilisation, vasectomy and vasectomy reversal.

For the last 40 days, a group of anti-abortion activists called 40 Days for Life have conducted ‘prayer vigils’ on this site during the clinic’s working hours. They have reportedly approached women who have entered the clinic, speaking to them and offering them literature in the attempt to dissuade these women from going ahead with an abortion (if, indeed, that is why they are attending the clinic).  Staff and patients alike have complained of intimidation, and there have been reports of activists filming those who enter and leave the building – although 40 Days for Life have denied any involvement in this particular activity.

Last night, the 40 Days for Life group – who, if you haven’t already guessed, are of right-wing Christian persuasion – invited Bishop Alan Hopes to an evening prayer vigil. As a counter demonstration, the Bloomsbury Pro-Choice Alliance (with the support of Abortion Rights) organised a protest to coincide with the vigil.
Although I have been on a lot of pro-choice demonstrations in the past, I honestly felt really conflicted about attending last night’s event. Firstly, I support  the right of anyone to protest, to use public space as they wish and to express themselves freely. These vigils, as 40 Days for Life have been calling them, are not unlawful – but I do find them incredibly worrying.

40 Days for Life is an American-rooted campaign (launched on a national level in the US in the autumn of 2007) that has made the leap over to the UK fairly recently. I believe the campaign is a Lenten activity, said to involve prayer, fasting, vigils and outreach work. As Robert Colquhoun, UK campaign director for 40 Days for Life, told the BBC’s Today programme; ”Any assertion that there’s any harrassment or intimidation as part of our campaign is very inaccurate.”

However, reports of harrassment have still surfaced with complaints from staff and patients. One patient’s statement read; “The man by the fence followed me to the door with leaflets and asked why I wouldn’t speak to him. He waited until the intercom answered.” Whether intimidation is the intention or not, for women who may very well be in a state of stress, it is clearly the outcome. Personally, such an approach doesn’t sound very Christian to me.

I think Ann Furedi, chief executive of the BPAS said it best (when also speaking to the Today programme) with her assertion; “If you want to have a debate about abortion, that’s great, have one, debate me, debate my policy team, debate other people who have strong views on it, but for heaven’s sake leave the women alone who are coming to our clinic, because they’re not coming because they think abortion is right – they’re coming because they need medical help.”

The anti-abortionist tactics of groups like 40 Days for Life have become the norm in America, with protesters stationed outside clinics, approaching those who enter and threatening staff. In a lot of cases, the situation is so bad that clinincs have to hire people to escort women into the building for treatment. It really scares me that we are beginning to see this wave of activism come to our shores, even in its most subtle and peaceful incarnation, and the immediate instinct is, of course, to stand up against it and shout it down. But, whilst the gut instinct to drown out this group is immediate and strong, is this the right thing to do?

I was still asking myself this question as I arrived in Bedford square to the chants of “stop harassing women” coming from the large and loud mass of pro-choice protesters. The Guardian estimated that this group out-numbered those at the prayer vigil two to one, and they certainly made a lot more noise with chants, drums – even pan lids being bashed with spoons – drowning out the prayers and hymns. One pro-choice man, who had stationed himself nearer to the praying group, had an alarm on his bicycle blaring out whilst he joined in chants of ‘Shame on you’.

As the facebook page publicising the pro-choice event had said; ‘Obviously it would be a terrible shame if we were to disrupt 40DFL’s vigil, however I think that’s a risk we’ll have to take’… and I guess it was this snarky stance that had made me feel uneasy. I desperately wanted to mark my opposition to the intimidatory tactics of this anti-abortionist group, but I felt conflicted over shouting over them. What would being deliberately antagonistic towards these people achieve? But then, 40 Days for Life are ultimately the ones imposing their views on women who may be at their most vulnerable, which is definitely more damaging than making a couple of verses of Kum Ba Ya  a bit difficult for those stood at the back of their group to hear.

But as James Ball wrote in The Guardian, the fear is that counter protests such as this one could make matters worse – heating up both sides to a point where more threatening US-style tactics become inevitable, with the debate polarised and the atmosphere for women trying to use abortion services becoming hostile.  The last thing that the pro-choice movement wants is for clinics to become legitimised as a place of protest, as this will only make things harder for the women who are trying to access the services they need.

Questioned on this very point for the Pod Delusions coverage of the event, Deborah Hyde (editor of The Skeptic magazine) said;  “I don’t think we have a choice…we have to react in this way, we have to make it very clear to everybody that we do like choice in this country.”

Clearly other groups felt there was ‘no choice’ too. On their own website, Abortion Rights said; ‘Pro-choice groups have not staged counter-protests against the 40 Days for Life campaign during clinic hours: it increases anti-choice numbers and often makes the situation worse for service users. But… It’s time for the UK’s pro-choice majority to say we’ve had enough of this kind of behaviour and to stand up for our right to safe, legal abortion.’ A spokesperson for the group, Darinka Aleksic , also told the Guardian; “We need to send a very clear message that we will not tolerate that sort of activity in the UK.”

Another factor that may have led pro-choice activists to decide to mount this counter-demonstration is that apparently the Bedford Square BPAS clinic is set to close, so any repercussions would not continue at this particular site.

So, did the protest heat up to US levels nearing boiling point? Well no, but I must admit the atmosphere was very strange. I have protested alongside anti-abortionist campaigners before, but that time our separate groups were both directing our attention towards the houses of parliament and those MPs entering it. This time, focussing attention directly at the so-called ‘pro-lifers’ brought a certain tension to the proceedings.

Still, the whole thing felt decidedly British, with people happy to engage in debate in a non-threatening, even banter-ish, manner. One anti-abortion protester (a man who I overheard stating that ‘contraception ruins the enjoyment of sex’ as part of his argument) decided to stand with the pro-choice faction, shuffling through his placards in a Bob Dylan-esque fashion whilst other protesters playfully put their own pro-choice placards in front of his.

As the time came for the protests to dismantle, police presence ramped up – a scary sight usually unseen at pro-choice demos. It was an ominous snapshot of what could happen if anti-abortionists insist on continuing to make direct contact with women who are essentially attempting to access a lawful service. Thankfully, those at BPAS have batted away any suggestion of a need for more strident measures against such groups (such as escorts for patients) since it still seems to be only a tiny minority of people protesting against their work.
All I hope is that in future, counter-protests such as this won’t be necessary because anti-abortion protesters will keep their activism to more appropriate avenues – leaving women who may well be in desperate emotional turmoil out of the picture.

One brilliant thing to have come out of all this is that a charity page has been set up for those who want to take a stand against 40 Days for Life, but who were unsure about joining the counter protest. The idea is that people donate an amount of money to BPAS for every day the prayer vigil is set up outside, and it has apparently reduced BPAS staff to tears of gratitude! Today (the 40th day!)  is the last day to donate to the campaign – please do so here if you wish!

More to do;


Listen to Ann Furedi and Robert Colquhoun speak on the Today programme (this made me shout at my laptop)

Watch The Pod Delusion’s video report from the protest

Watch 40 Days of Life’s video on their work in London, England (contains danger of *facepalm*)

Read James Ball’s fears about the counter protest and the idea behind the charity page over on The Guardian

By: Sarah Barnes, 31.03.2012 | Comments (0)
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