40 Day for Life: why we need to tackle abortion stigma

Brook’s Media and Communications Officer, Eliza Bell, writes on the harmful and hypocritical nature of the 40 Days for Life Campaign and why it’s a stark reminder that providing abortions is not enough – we must fight stigma at its root.

We’re now half way through 40 Days for Life, a religious anti-abortion campaign that runs throughout Lent. The worldwide campaign, which started in the US and has been running in the UK since 2010, sees anti-choice activists protesting outside reproductive health clinics in an attempt to prevent women and pregnant people from accessing abortion services.

While the 40 Days for Life website portrays the campaign as a ‘peaceful and educational presence’ that aims to end abortion through ‘prayer, fasting and community outreach’, the reality is intimidating groups of protestors shaming women and pregnant people for their right to choose.

The campaign frequently defends its actions as the right to free speech and peaceful protest. But there are numerous accounts of harassment on the part of these activists; ranging from signs saying ‘Babies are murdered here’ and forcefully handing out leaflets that spread misinformation (such as abortions being linked to breast cancer), to shouting abuse at those entering a clinic. Staff at Marie Stopes clinics have shared their first-hand experiences of “the distress and harm” caused by these protesters on a daily basis.

This is in blatant opposition to an individual’s sexual and reproductive rights, defined by the UN as “the right to make decisions concerning reproduction free from discrimination, coercion and violence.”

Moreover, using tactics of intimidation and harassment that hamper another individual’s right to freedom of choice and right to privacy invalidates any claim to be a peaceful protest.

#BackOff

The 40 Days for Life campaign is a stark reminder of the need for better laws to protect women and their right to decide what happens to their bodies.

A review by the UK Home Office into protests outside abortion clinics was launched in 2017, for which Brook submitted evidence. It concluded that introducing Safe Access Zones outside abortion clinics “would not be a proportionate response”. But the report underplayed and misrepresented women’s experiences.

Last year, Brook co-signed a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel to express our concerns about the way the review was conducted and to ask her to revisit the issue. We join other organisations in calling on the government to give us buffer zones around all abortion clinics.

Our sector partners, Marie Stopes UK, whose clinics and staff experience the daily reality of anti-abortion protests not just during 40 Days for Life, are ardent that we need nationwide buffer zones:

“A designated Safe Access Zone to prevent harassing behaviour and activities at the premises of all those who provide confidential abortion care services and advice is a simple and effective solution.”

Marie Stopes UK

Common, safe and legal

We have celebrated significant wins in pro-choice legislation in recent years. Notably, the decriminalisation of abortion through the repeal of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act in Northern Ireland and the repeal of the 8th Amendment in the Republic of Ireland – both momentous and long-deserved victories. Ealing Council also implemented the UK’s first buffer zone around the local Marie Stopes clinic in 2018.

But the battle is not yet won.

Abortion is common, safe, and legal. And with one in three British women having an abortion (or abortions) before the age of 45, as well as the majority of people expressing relief as their dominant emotion following abortion, it is no longer tenable that abortion still incites such stigma and shame among large swathes of the population.

But the reality remains that one of the biggest concerns surrounding abortion is how others will judge your decision, rather than the procedure itself.

It is therefore not enough to simply provide abortions; we need to tackle stigma at its root. This includes moving abortion from criminal law into medical law, and seeing it regulated like other medical procedures. We need to see young people receiving accurate and unbiased education about pregnancy and abortion – something Brook is already delivering in schools and provides free downloadable resources on to support teachers. We also need permanent buffer zones around all abortion clinics as standard.

At Brook we are resolute in our belief of the individual’s right to choose; and that includes the right to choose that abortion is not an option for you.

What cannot be compromised is a person’s right to accurate and appropriate information, healthcare and support without shame, intimidation or harassment. We will continue to fight until this is the case.

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