Activism

A US-funded anti-abortion group is trying to influence UK anti-protest legislation

The group submitted evidence to parliament, trying to stop a ban on intimidating women at abortion centres.

A protester holds a 'My body, my choice' placard.

Pro-choice protesters marched to the US Embassy in London in June 2022 as reports emerged that Roe v. Wade. Photo by Vuk Valcic/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock

A US-funded anti-abortion group is trying to influence new anti-protest legislation in the UK, parliamentary documents have revealed, as part of a mass campaign to stop so-called “buffer zones” at abortion clinics becoming law.

Society for the Protection of Unborn Children is among a number of groups and individuals who wrote to MPs about the Public Order Bill, urging them to remove a clause which would make it illegal to protest directly outside clinics.

Another group, Right to Life UK, submitted similar evidence, and identical or near-identical letters were sent by over 330 people arguing that a ban on protesting outside abortion clinics represents a ban on freedom of expression.

Threatening or harassing women within abortion clinic buffer zones could result in prison sentences of up to two years, under the amendment put forward by Labour MP Rupa Huq.

“It’s a topic that many people we speak to are surprised by,” wrote Huq and Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin last year, when the clause was first proposed. “It happens in America – they think – but surely not over here. That images of women having to walk past people holding out plastic babies and telling them they’re murderers just don’t belong in England.

“But this is the reality for the more than 100,000 women a year who have to attend a clinic targeted by these anti-abortion groups.”

The Public Order Bill has been widely condemned as undemocratic and restricting the right to protest.

Letters opposing the buffer zone clause argue that protests outside abortion clinics are “vigils not protests”, “do not behave in an intimidating manner” and say buffer zones deny last-minute help to women.

But women’s rights and healthcare groups told The Big Issue this level of resistance is coordinated, coming from a small group of people – and misrepresents the reality.

Rachael Clarke, chief of staff at British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which provides abortion care on behalf of the NHS, said the group regularly received reports of women feeling harassed and intimidated, as well as of false medical information being handed out by pro-life protesters.

“The idea that this is just one of two inoffensive people standing and praying, and going on their way is just not the case,” Clarke said.

“You’re talking about probably no more than 150 or 200 people around the country who are causing all this harassment to tens of thousands of women every year.”

Tanya Taylor, a volunteer with Sister Supporter, said women accessing abortion clinics were often subject to harassment, confronted with graphic images, chants of “mum” and “murderer”.

Women have been followed to their cars, and had graphic images put into their hands, added Taylor, whose group campaigns against harassment at abortion clinics.

“They are judging and interfering and intimidating and harassing at the point of access, to try and change individual people’s minds about having an abortion,” Taylor told The Big Issue.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children was accused of “shadowy” funding after VICE News revealed it had received almost £73,000 in anonymous donations from the US since 2020.

Documents registered with the Charity Commission show a “substantial restricted fund donation from NPT Transatlantic in the USA” to the SPUC Educational Trust in 2020 and 2021, although they do not list the amount.

Michael Robinson, SPUC’s executive director of public affairs, told The Big Issue the donation was from a single individual.

The group gives talks to schoolchildren about “coerced abortion”, and has a presentation which tells children sex is something “saved through the virtue of chastity.”

In its written evidence to parliament, it argued the new law would “deprive women of vital help,” calling it an “extreme and undemocratic measure.”

Current legislation is not doing enough, BPAS and Sister Supporter told The Big Issue, with a small number of groups and individuals having an outsized impact on women trying to access healthcare.

“It definitely needs national, lasting government legislation,” Taylor said. “It affects over 100,00 clinic users a year, at a low estimate, so it’s a big problem.

Clarke added: “We need this amendment because existing law is not enough to put a stop to it. 

“In the past five years, 50 clinics in England and Wales have been targeted by this kind of activity. In the last year, five new clinics have been hit by people for the first time.“

Michael Robinson, executive director of public affairs and legal services, told The Big Issue: “SPUC Pro Life Limited has not received any donations from the United States. The trust, which is a separate entity that we work closely with, has. It’s just one person, an individual, who has donated money.

On the issue of harassment abortion centres, he added: “In a democracy we have the right to disagree with people.”

“We have the right to freely express ourselves. The thresholds for impeding that freedom is a high margin to meet, and I don’t think that’s justifiable based on the evidence, or the lack of evidence. There are existing powers in terms of the police in terms of intimidation and harassment.”

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