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The Antis Need to 'Back Off', But We Need to Talk About Abortion

30/11/2014 22:38 | Updated 30 January 2015

In the UK we don't talk about abortion; not like they do in the United States. Our election campaigns aren't hijacked by the abortion debate and we don't see hundreds of our politicians totally preoccupied with passing legislation restricting abortion. We probably don't even know what our own MPs think about abortion because 99% of the time it just isn't a thing.

The biggest anti-abortion organisations are so aware of how badly their messages play in the UK,that they are not even out and proud with their agenda: operating mainly at the level of obfuscation and misinformation. Unlike in the US, clinic staff here don't need armed escorts and bullet proof windows and, thankfully, we don't have to bury beloved family members who have been murdered by fanatics, whipped into a frenzy in the 'by any means necessary' environment created by even the most mainstream anti-abortion groups.

Since 1967 in England, Scotland and Wales women have been able to access safe and legal abortion without risk to life and health, and that's how the majority of us want it to stay. This consensus has resulted in a kind of complacency and little discussion of abortion in the UK. Looking at the US model of 'debate' this has largely seemed like a good thing.

Now we do have to start talking about abortion. Not just because we seem to have forgotten the important role legal abortion has played in saving women's lives, and facilitating our participation in the economic, social and cultural life of the country. Not just because we still have work to do to extend this right to women in Northern Ireland. Not just to end the stigma that ludicrously still surrounds a safe, legal procedure experienced by one in three women. Not just because those campaigning against abortion keep forgetting that if you pan out from that foetus they want to save, you'll see a walking, talking woman with moral agency, responsibilities and relationships, and the best possible intelligence about whether having a child right now is a good idea.

No. We need to talk about abortion because the phoney war (small groups of vigil-antis outside clinics, praying, thrusting rosary beads and plastic foetuses into women's hands, giving out leaflets packed with fake science and scare stories) - is over. For the first time an anti-abortion group has declared real war on abortion clinics with new levels of harassment that have left staff feeling beleaguered, and women intimidated, invaded and upset.

They are lining the streets around clinics with vast photographs of bloody foetuses, approaching staff and members of the public and filming them on discretely positioned cameras without their consent. They are challenging women about the treatment they are seeking and following women down the street with complete disregard for their privacy and sense of safety, causing as much distress as they can. They have learned from their American colleagues that if you can't make accessing or providing an abortion legally impossible, then you should aim to make it intolerable.

In response to this intensification of clinic protests, abortion provider Bpas has launched the 'back off' campaign. The campaign calls on the government to create protest-free access zones directly around clinics - to allow staff and members of the public safe passage as they come and go.

The protestors have, of course, cried foul. They claim that their right to free speech entitles them to follow and film women and speak right up close in their faces: even claim that these invasive tactics are 'empowering' for women. But as bpas Director Ann Furedi says, 'women arriving at clinics aren't coming for a debate. They are coming to access a confidential medical service, and should be left alone.'

Access zones do not need to compromise free speech. If anything, having to respond to this ugly new development in protest should encourage us all to engage in the debate - just not right outside clinics, please. It may mean debating with people who deliberately misinform us, who try to shame us, and whose views we find deeply offensive. But we know from the American experience we can't turn a blind eye to abortion opponents and just hope they'll go away. If we want to protect our rights, we really do need to talk about how much we cherish them. We need to talk about abortion.