Pro-choice activists from Portsmouth and Hampshire are organising counter-protests in response to the 40 Days for Life anti-abortion vigils being held daily outside St Mary’s Hospital until 5th November. Sarah Cheverton reports.
40 Days for Life is a religious anti-abortion campaign that protests outside clinics providing abortions in the hope of changing the minds of women scheduled for, or considering, the procedure. Between 27th September and 5th November 40 Days activists are holding daily silent ‘vigils’ outside St Mary’s Community Hospital, where the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) run their clinic.
In response, the Hampshire Pro Choice group has been active in letting local residents know about the religious protesters, encouraging local people to go to St Mary’s Hospital and show their support to women going in and out of the clinic.
A representative of Hampshire Pro Choice told S&C, “We’re also asking people who feel able to to send cards and small gifts to the BPAS clinic in solidarity with them and their work.”
The group has already succeeded in lobbying Portsmouth City Council to remove a banner erected without permission by 40 Days for Life protesters from outside the hospital that encouraged women to ring an anti-abortion telephone line if they were pregnant and unsure what to do (see image right).
The Portsmouth BPAS clinic manager Chris Francis told S&C about the impact of the 40 Days protesters on women using the clinic, as well as on the staff who work there.
Women who attend our clinic are often anxious as they face a difficult and emotional decision. They deserve support and compassion, not judgement. It is important that women in the UK can access safe abortion care without fear or intimidation. The feedback we have received from not only BPAS clients but other departments seeing vulnerable women is that the protest is upsetting.
Equally the team have found this protest unsettling. In 2015 the police were called after monks were seen photographing the hospital, the BPAS signs and the car park. Fortunately a domestic worker reported the activity to the hospital security and the police were able to delete the images from the digital devices. You can imagine how unnerving this news was for the team. Monks of the same order are taking part in this protest and though they have not entered the unit again it caused some upset. We are lucky to have a dedicated team who strongly believe in protecting a woman’s right to choose despite concerns about their own privacy.
To counter the anti-abortion campaigners, Hampshire Pro Life, supported by local group Portsmouth Feminists Unite are promoting two pro-choice events.
On 28th October, between 9-11am, 40 Days for Life anti-abortionists will be holding a procession from Our Lady of Lourdes Church to St Mary’s Hospital to mark the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of abortion in the UK, where they will ‘pray for the reparation of all the last 50 years – 9 million abortions’ (see image below).
The procession will be held when the BPAS Clinic is open and Hampshire Pro Choice and Portsmouth Feminists Unite are asking local residents to peacefully gather at the Hospital and show their support for women accessing the clinic on that day.
The event page on Facebook explains the aims of the counter-protest.
This will allow the women attending the clinic that day to be protected from seeing any disturbing images or hear any unwanted chanting / praying. It will also show the congregation that the people of Portsmouth are united in the belief that we support women’s choices!
On 5th November, 40 Days for Life will hold a candlelight vigil outside the Hospital between 7-8pm to ‘light up an avalanche of lighted candles to finish off the campaign and remember the 9 million lost brothers and sisters who should have been with us in these generations.’ (See image below).
Hampshire Pro Choice and Portsmouth Feminists Unite are organising a counter protest on 5th November to run alongside the vigil, and are asking for local residents to attend and support the access to abortion provided by the 1967 Abortion Act.
In a recent open letter published on S&C and reproduced in The Huffington Post, Chief Executive of charity Aurora New Dawn, Shonagh Dillon explained why the 40 Days for Life movement’s targeting of clinics providing abortion is so harmful.
Protesting – for both of us – is our human right and a central pillar of our democracy. But it should not be used as a tool for causing suffering to those we disagree with. So, I’m asking you to think again.
Give these women the privacy they need on the one day they really need it. To do so is an act that demonstrates the compassion and respect most of us understand to be at the heart of Christianity.
Aurora New Dawn are official supporters of the BPAS campaign ‘Back Off’ to protect abortion care. Their website outlines the campaign as follows:
Women should be able to access legal healthcare free from intimidation and harassment. We believe we need specific legislation to ensure women can access pregnancy advice and abortion centres free from interference. The right to protest needs to be balanced with the right of pregnant women to obtain advice and treatment in confidence and free from intimidation. For those who wish to campaign to restrict women’s reproductive choices, there are plenty of opportunities and locations in which to do so. The space immediately outside clinics should not be one of them. Establishing protest-free zones outside centres would provide the reassurance and security women and healthcare staff need.
Last week Ealing Council voted to prevent campaigners like the 40 Days for Life movement approaching women as they enter a Marie Stopes clinic providing abortion services. Councillors voted in favour of considering steps to stop protesters harassing and intimidating women outside the clinic – Ealing Council is the first local authority in the country to do so.
A statement from BPAS urged the government to ‘follow the example set by Ealing Council, take responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of women seeking abortion care, and put forward legislation to introduce buffer zones as a matter of urgency.’
Feminist campaigner and member of Portsmouth Feminists Unite Lucy Schorn – who wrote for S&C last week about talking to 40 Days for Life protesters – would like to see Portsmouth City Council take similar action.
Lucy said, ‘I ask that Portsmouth City Council take the harassment of women in this city seriously and consider how they can protect women accessing these healthcare facilities, now and in the future.’
As members of the BPAS Back Off campaign, charity Aurora New Dawn recently asked Stephen Morgan MP if he supports BPAS in calling on the government to introduce legislation allowing ‘buffer zones’ around the clinics of abortion providers. The Parliamentary office of Stephen Morgan have confirmed his support for the campaign and S&C have contacted Stephen Morgan for comment.
Shonagh Dillon told S&C, ‘I’m delighted Stephen Morgan supports the BPAS campaign. We have to recognise there is a difference between the right to protest – which no one is disputing – and actively harassing women who are attempting to access services they are legally entitled to under the 1967 Abortion Act.’
UPDATE 19/10/17 18.15: Stephen Morgan contacted S&C with a statement of support for the BPAS campaign:
Given how difficult and stressful the decision about having an abortion must be, it is vital that women are able to access confidential medical and psychological advice and support without fear of harassment or intimidation. The police say that existing public order legislation is insufficient to keep the pavement a safe space.The Government should look at what it can do to ensure that women can attend sensitive health care appointments and that health care workers can do their jobs without fear of harassment or abuse.