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Our ‘pro-choice’ presence outside the abortion clinic in Buckhurst Hill.

Two years ago, Feminist Fightback decided to make a stand against the religious group, which calls itself ‘Helpers of God’s Precious Infants’, as they marched to an abortion clinic in Essex to pressurise and intimidate women. We publicised this decision amongst feminist circles and contacted the workers at the clinic, but we didn’t receive any response. It was only afterwards that we were contacted by the Women’s Grid, telling us that we had contravened a collective decision by certain feminist organisations to not engage in this type of action outside clinics. Reasons apparently were that many clinic workers did not want any type of demo at their doors and presumably that this type of counter-presence would escalate the situation.

We don’t want these demos happening either. We would prefer to not have to be there but we think we have no choice. We refuse to let the space be taken up by these religious zealots to peddle their lies and try to enforce their misogynist worldview. Any space conceded to their ilk will, in itself, escalate the situation. We cannot afford to naively think that they will disappear on their own, or that their tactics will not become even more threatening and intrusive. This situation is getting worse: we never really heard about this type of things a few years ago, apart from in places like the US or Poland. Now, there is always at least one of two members of Helpers of God’s Precious Infants outside this clinic in Buckhurst Hill, and we’ve no doubt heard about the group intimidating women and staff at the clinic in Blackfriars by e.g. filming them. With large amounts of support and funding from the USA, this is an issue that looks set to get worse, especially if feminist groups do not exert a counter-force against it.

We wrote a statement last year after our last trip to Buckhurst Hill to try and open up a wider debate about tactics. Most people on our Facebook Group at least felt they didn’t want to go against the wishes of the clinic staff if they didn’t want a counter demo on days when the zealots were there. On our latest trip to Buckhurst Hill, staff came out and talked to us, saying they were very happy that were there. Normally, they said there would be a member of staff outside to escort women into the clinic but because of cuts, they couldn’t do this. We think that without our presence, the atmosphere and experience would have been much worse for people going into the clinic. Women were shocked to leave the clinic and find a sea of rosary beads and police. One woman was too scared to get out of her car. Another young girl was crying as she rushed into the clinic, visibly distressed at having to run this gauntlet to get inside. All the women we approached to escort into the clinic said yes. For this reason alone, we think we made the right decision to go there. We think other groups should join us.

But even if the clinic workers had been hostile to our presence, this in itself would not have been a reason for us to stay away and give up all the space to the zealots and the cops. We think we should question the role of these workers (ostensibly private sector ‘service-providers’) and challenge the de-politicisation of the issue of abortion that comes along with the marketization of it within and outside the NHS.

Some issues became apparent in the run-up and on the day:

We need some way to differentiate ourselves from the zealots as it’s easy for people to assume we are part of them.

We took our sound system to drown out their hymns and prayers but unfortunately we had a technical failure and it didn’t work! So we shouted slogans back at them. Drowning them out and creating a more ‘upbeat’ atmosphere seemed like a good way to counteract the distressing and sombre presence of the nutters.

We were a bit stuck for good chants! Any ideas..?

When we were printing the flyers there was difference of opinion about using the words ‘women’ and ‘choice’ – the first centring around the exclusionary use of the word ‘woman’ (i.e. not trans-friendly) and the second around the limitations of the rhetoric of ‘choice’ (liberal/neo-liberal term that doesn’t take into account the fact that we should focus on changing the material conditions which affect our ‘individual choices’). We need to have more discussions about this e.g. can these issues be resolved in practice or for the sake of clarity to a ‘confused public’, should we carry on using these terms?

It is impossible to have a ‘rational’ argument with the zealots – the discussion invariably turns to more ‘spiritual’ concerns that have no rational basis unless you want to start quoting bits of the Bible. This has an impact on tactics (having some kind of ‘open dialogue’ with them is pointless. We tried.)

But it was a good tactic to talk to them to distract them so that they left the women going in and out of the clinic alone.

Previous discussions we’ve had within our collective on tactics has tried to look at anti-fascist tactics to see how and if they can be relevant in this situation. We have been in touch with some anti-fascists who have said that they want to come with us next time and stand behind us. They don’t want to take over but are clear themselves that the tactic should be to make the space as hostile and intimidating to the nutters as possible so as to deter them from coming back. Let’s discuss if and how we would want to organise with them.

*This article is a report by a member of Feminism Fightback – designed to stimulate discussion (it does not necessarily represent our collective opinion).