What are the best tactics for feminists to use to challenge anti-choice vigils?
A discussion piece by Feminist Fightback
As every feminist knows, the last few years have witnessed a shocking rise in USstyle anti-abortion vigils outside clinics. A number of feminist organisations have been doing excellent work in countering this including Bloomsbury Pro-Choice who have mounted a consistent challenge to the destructive 40 Days for Life campaign in London, Brighton Pro-Choice and other local groups. Feminist Fightback had our own encounter with these anti-abortionists and since then we have been reflecting on and discussing the best strategies to counter the anti-abortion aggression.
Having been alerted that the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants were planning to picket a Marie Stopes clinic in Buckhurst Hill we decided to go and resist them outside the church where they were assembling. We contacted the Marie Stopes clinic in advance to find out their approach to these anti-abortion pickets but did not get a reply. Unfortunately the anti-abortionists were already on their way when we got there; they responded very aggressively, as did the police who appeared to be playing a protective role to the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants and threatened to arrest us as soon as we arrived. Thinking on our feet, we decided to try and block the road to prevent them from getting near the clinic. Anti-abortionists exceeded even our own expectations as to the lengths they would go to prevent women from seeking abortions. They used their icon of the Virgin Mary as a battering ram, broke through our line, forced their way past us and head butted one of our allies, drawing blood. We then attempted to limit the damage caused by a large group of anti-abortionists singing hymns, praying into a loud speaker and handing out leaflets full of lies right outside the entrance, by escorting women inside. Eventually some of the clinic staff came out. We asked them what they would like us to do and they said they were not in favour of any protest outside the clinic full stop.
We realise this was a far from ideal situation and resulted from having to act on the spur of the moment. Having reflected upon it, however, we remain uncertain about what would have been the best way to challenge groups like Helpers of Gods Precious Infants. Our encounter with them confirmed for us that their presence outside a clinic is extremely threatening and impossible to ignore. Clearly no one who believes in a woman’s right to choose can simply ignore them and hope they will go away.
A few days later we were contacted by Women’s Grid who had previously advertised our protest informing us that they would not be able to publicise actions in future because a consensus had been reached within the feminist movement that counter protests outside clinics should be avoided at all costs. We have subsequently communicated with staff at BPAS and other Marie Stopes clinics they have confirmed that they are against counter protests and US style escort actions whereby women are safely escorted into clinics by pro-choice supporters.
The purpose of this article is to get a debate going amongst different feminist groups about what is the best strategy to counter the rising tide of aggressive anti-abortion action. We understand clinic staff are concerned to minimise confrontations, but we feel strongly that the action of anti-abortionists say something significant about their control over public space and have material impact on women’s ability to access abortions and while we note the excellent work that groups like Bloomsbury pro-Choice have done in holding alternative demonstrations outside of clinics when they are closed, none of this actually prevents ant-abortionists harassing women. Are there alternative methods we could use to stop them in their tracks? Is direct confrontation always counter-productive in these situations?
We’re genuinely interested in debate and dialogue and thinking through these questions collectively.
Summary of the debate
We have had a good number and variety of responses on our Facebook page. To keep hold of these threads of the debate and to encourage further debate these are summarised below.
Most said they would not want to go against the wish of the staff inside the clinics for their not to be counter-protests on the days when the clinic is open, but at least one person questioned that “consensus”. One person suggested further investigation into the views of patients on this matter, but another asked whether a survey could be conducted. And the point was made that there really isn’t an “average” user of these clinics and that would complicate the basis for such a survey.
Someone suggested, if we could not protest outside clinics, we could take our protests to the churches where pre-vigil services are being held.
And there was some discussion about the attitude of the Catholic Church to the protests. Could we target the clergy involved in the protests? Are these protestors “fringe” elements who could be marginalised by more sympathetic/pro-choice people within the church (there is a Catholics for Choice group).
There was cautioning against indiscriminate targeting of church people and places and there was some disagreement with disrupting actual services.
If not churches, protests could be held at other public places where the anti-abortionists are.
Talking to the public – e.g. at tube stations – was also suggested.
Protests are good, but what does this do to empower women facing the anti-abortionists outside clinics?
One person suggested escorting women to the clinic from a rendez-vous so they would not have to encounter anti-abortion vigils. This was, it was recognised, a large undertaking, requiring a lot of volunteers. On the other hand it might legitimate the pro-choice presence and allow the clinic users to decide the basis of our presence.
Others felt a direct action approach was the right thing to do.It might involve blocking them before they get to the clinic. Perhaps we can learn from anti-fascist activism on these kinds of tactics.
Other action could be done outside clinics; this might be documenting the vigils in a low key way, any harassment of women entering the clinic and taking pictures of them. Another tactic might be to block them in some way (using a big sheet!), again while they are at clinics.