Protest or Prayer? Religious Anti-Abortionists Opposed at St Mary’s Hospital

Feminist blogger and activist Lucy Schorn reports on last weekend’s protest at St Mary’s Hospital, where pro-choice activists and religious anti-abortion protesters came face to face.

On Saturday 28th October, I joined over a hundred people at the entrance to St Mary’s Hospital, Portsmouth and stood in solidarity to support the rights of women to safely and freely access abortion, support and legal advice, free from intimidation and fear.

We were all there to take part in a counter protest organised by Portsmouth resident Emily Brotherhood against a religious anti-abortion campaign called 40 Days for Life, which specifically targets 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 have been holding daily ‘vigils’ outside St Mary’s Community Hospital, where the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) run their clinic.

Emily was inspired to organise the protest when she walked past the hospital and saw the 40 Days for Life protesters, who have been there almost daily since September, albeit in small numbers.

‘I felt intimidated’ said Emily.

When I saw people dressed in robes it just hit me straight in my stomach and I wondered how women would feel accessing the service…if I felt that intimidated, how would they feel? I have previously worked closely with women as a midwife and know there are so many different reasons for abortion – I have had two myself – and none of those reasons are up for judgement.

Legally it may be allowed but standing outside a clinic, passive-aggressively harassing women [is] morally wrong and I just couldn’t sleep for thinking about it.

Emily shared the counter-protest on social media to coincide with a planned vigil from 40 Days for Life that saw activists and monks walk from Our Lady of Lourdes Church to St Mary’s Hospital on Saturday morning.

On the day, supporters came out in force with banners and signs, sharing their messages, including a sign that read:

Just because I am pro-choice, does not mean I am pro-abortion. It means I understand that your choice is none of my damn business and I will always fight for your right to choose.

Pro-choice protester Elle Gray said ‘I came today because I can’t stand the idea that a woman would be confronted by these religious fanatics at the hospital on what would already be a horrific day.

‘If they want to prevent abortion in this country they should publicly campaign to get the law changed, with their arguments put to public scrutiny. They should not be allowed to harass individual women.’

The supporters filled the areas around the entrance to St Mary’s, where a British Pregnancy and Advisory Service (BPAS) clinic is located within the hospital. Supporters chanted and held banners, receiving cheers and toots from passing cars.

Pro-choice protesters have made links with BPAS clinic staff and managers, and part of the protest was also about showing community support to the clinic. The staff have been sent ‘Thank You’ cards, balloons and cakes over the past few weeks from members of the public keen to show gratitude and appreciation for the clinic, particularly when it is being targeted by a religious campaign.

It was clear from Saturday’s counter-protest that Emily has strong support from the community, however organising the protest has come at a price. After the protest, a piece of paper with ‘Murderer’ written on it was posted through the front door of her family home; but Emily remains undeterred.

‘It makes me want to run down there and shout the loudest!’ Emily said. ‘It’s only because my name has been mentioned [in relation to the campaign].’

Posting in the Hampshire Pro Choice Facebook group, Emily said ‘We will continue to fight for women’s rights, and to fight for safety zones outside of clinics where abortions are performed, and we will challenge your presence until these zones are formed.’

Pro Choice supporter Emily May Neale had holy water thrown at her by 40 Days for Life protesters on a previous counter-protest.

‘I’m pretty spiritual myself,’ said Emily May Neale ‘but this felt incredibly offensive as it was chucked towards us.’

Although 40 Days for Life protester Mike told me their campaigners are just praying when I interviewed him recently for Star & Crescent, the campaign – which originates from the USA – has previously been criticised for its intimidating tactics, from targeting patients coming in and out of clinics to handing out false or misleading information, including false claims that abortion is linked to breast cancer.

40 Days for Life campaigners are undertaking their vigils across the country, including in London, Birmingham, Bournemouth and Leeds.

In response to 40 Days for Life protests BPAS have started a campaign called “Back Off” calling for ‘buffer zones’ outside the clinics of abortion providers to protect patients and staff from harassment and intimidation.

Portsmouth South MP Stephen Morgan has already given his support to the campaign.

In October, Ealing Council voted to explore ways to prevent protests outside their West London clinic. Richard Bentley, Managing Director at Marie Stopes UK told the Evening Standard:

This ground-breaking move by Ealing Council sets a national precedent for ending the harassment of women using legal healthcare services. We respect and support the right to free speech, but it absolutely does not give strangers a free pass to bully and intimidate women…All it does is upset women on what can already be a difficult day.

According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, public support for abortion on the grounds that a woman does not wish to have the child has increased from 60% to 70% since 2005. The percentage rises to 93% if the woman’s life is in danger. Between 1985 and 2016, Catholic support for abortion if a women doesn’t want the child almost doubled from 33% to 61%. In 2013, the Guardian reported that since 2005, the percentage of the British population wanting to ban abortions had dropped from 12% to just 7% .

It is clear that support for the access to abortion set out in the 1967 Abortion Act remains strong across the country, despite the antics of campaigns like 40 Days for Life.

I’m proud that here in Portsmouth the community have come together to stand up to harassment and show their support for women’s rights.

On 5th November, 40 Days for Life campaigners plan to hold a candle-lit vigil at St Mary’s Hospital. Hampshire Pro Choice group are planning a counter protest. Find out more on their Facebook page.

Photography by Lucy Schorn.

This article originally appeared on feminist blog Savage Fringe.