t’s taken years of campaigning, fierce battles in the Supreme Court, police raids on vulnerable women – and even mothers facing life imprisonment. But finally, at midnight on Monday, abortion – alongside gay marriage – became legal in Northern Ireland. It is, after years of fighting, a “bittersweet battle”, one campaigner wrote. “We wake up a little freer and a little more equal.”
But it was, in many ways, an accidental step forward for women’s rights. Northern Ireland has been without a government since January 2017, when the power-sharing executive broke down. The changes to the abortion laws happened automatically, as there was no government in place to stop it – despite a last-minute attempt from the pro-life Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who recalled the Assembly for the first time in three years.
This is key: while this is a moment that will be celebrated by many in the UK and Ireland, it is a tentative step forward at a time when there is a clear cultural backlash against abortion rights from the anti-choice movement at home and abroad. And while in the UK it is still at the fringe, this is a movement that is increasingly well-funded, well-organised, and supported by a wealthy US Christian right.
Abortion remains a criminal act in Britain, with the 1967 Abortion Act allowing terminations only under specific circumstances. Until now, the Act was never extended to Northern Ireland, where women faced life imprisonment if they try to access a termination, even in cases of rape. An amendment to July’s Northern Ireland Bill put forward by Labour MP Stella Creasy changed this. The Bill stated if devolution was not restored by midnight on Monday 21 October 2019, the government must bring regulations to Parliament and amend the law on abortion. So here we are.
At the other end of the spectrum, the pro-life movement has been galvanised. March for Life protests recently took place in Belfast, and the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, attended a pro-life protest at Stormont. Across the Irish Sea, in Britain a well-funded and well-organised anti-choice movement is fuelling a backlash against women’s rights. These organisations include the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR UK), Abort67, 40 Days for Life, and the Good Counsel Network. Taking inspiration from the US Christian right, these anti-choice activists have become more aggressive in their attacks on women’s reproductive rights, and regularly hold vigils outside abortion clinics.
On 18 and 19 October, that US-style training came to central London with the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform’s Clarkson Academy. The Centre originated in the States, and believes “abortion represents an evil”. CBR UK recently made headlines when they targeted Creasy by installing graphic billboards near her office. I attended the Academy for one day, having signed up with a false name. Delegates received training on the so-called #StopStella campaign, which aims to “expose the implications of Creasy’s extreme bill” for Northern Ireland.
Attendees were encouraged to take part in an “Educational Display” in Creasy’s constituency, which in practice means protesters holding up signs featuring pictures of aborted foetuses. CBR UK’s founder, Andy Stephenson, said in Friday’s opening session: “We’re seeing Creasy kicking up such a fuss about us showing what she is championing”. He went on to justify their tactics by saying Creasy “needs to see the reality of abortion against her defence of abortion.”
In response to our questions, CBR UK said: “We were in Walthamstow because Stella is an extreme abortion activist, and the fact she won’t publicly debate us is the best evidence even she doesn’t believe a word she says.”
The actions of CBR UK are just one example of how anti-choice groups have stepped up their protests. A recent investigation by openDemocracy revealed how one organisation, Alliance Defending Freedom, donated millions to anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ groups across Europe. In the UK, it is the Life League which takes credit for many of the hardline actions. They believe “debate and argument will not achieve the necessary results” and “what people really need is to be confronted with the grim and gruesome reality of abortion.” This tactic is mirrored by CBR, with Stephenson telling the Clarkson Academy audience that the use of graphic images is needed to “change the way we think and feel about this issue.” In an email, a statement from the organisation said that “the images will be part of the answer to the horrendous injustice that is killing babies whilst exploiting vulnerable women. But why is abortion imagery distressing?”
The anti-abortion movement is also not in a silo. Its rhetoric often goes hand-in-hand with far-right groups. For example, the founder of the UK Life League, Jim Dowson, is also involved with the far-right political group, Britain First. Articles published in their bi-annual Rescue magazine in 2018 blame abortion for a low birth rate in the “indigenous” population and describe a future where “the empty cradles, playgrounds and school chairs where our own children should be are occupied by aliens” unless abortion is made illegal.
This linking of anti-choice and anti-immigration is nothing new. In fact, it was the fear of real and perceived demographic crises that led to the historic crackdown on women’s reproductive rights and which led to the criminalisation of abortion. Up until the mid-sixteenth century, reproductive issues were considered a private family matter, and women who took remedies to “bring down the flowers” (force a miscarriage) were rarely condemned by Church or state. But attitudes towards abortion hardened in the 16th century, when the growing importance of capital led to what feminist theorist Silvia Federici called the “enslavement of women to procreation”.
Anti-immigrant feeling was also central to the criminalisation of abortion in 1860s America, where a low white Anglo-Saxon birth rate and rising numbers of Irish and other immigrants led to anti-abortion activist Dr Horatio R Storer asking whether America would “be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the destiny of the nation.” The language employed by Victorian anti-abortionists is not too distant from that of the present day Life League.
Beyond graphic and aggressive imagery, there is another US-imported tactic being employed by the anti-choice movement in the UK: the sharing of false medical information in order to undermine abortion law. Anti-choice groups including SPUC, Christian Concern and the Christian Medical Fellowship falsely report that abortions are linked to breast cancer, infertility and mental illness in order to claim most abortions in Britain are “in fact, illegal”. Under the 1967 Act, a woman can only have an abortion if two doctors confirm continuing a pregnancy risks her physical or mental wellbeing. These groups hope that by stating most abortions are in contravention of the law, they can put pressure on medical personnel not to give consent. BPAS’s Rachael Clarke said “false medical information and baseless scaremongering are a mainstay of the anti-abortion movement across the world.”
So, Northern Ireland’s historic law change is a significant moment for women’s rights. But it is clear that the anti-choice movement has different plans. It is on the fringe but globally connected – and is also expanding: in the UK, the CBR opened a regional wing in Bristol in September. Stephenson told his Clarkson Academy audience that “[we] have an opportunity to end abortion in five years” – and they are forging ahead with that ambition. They don’t simply want to stop future progress on abortion law. They want to reverse it.
Photographs Getty Images