It was with a jubilant spirit that those of us representing Brighton Fem Col set off to London this Friday alongside Brighton Pro Choice and Red Rag Campaign. We were heading to Bedford Square, location for one of many BPAS clinics around the country that provide vital services for women and couples, but also arguably the frontline for the clash between Pro-Choice and Anti-Choice campaigners and the focus for much of the media reporting on this issue.
On Friday evening supporters of 40 days for Life, an anti-choice group that has been carrying out vigils and protests outside various clinics, had turned out to hear Alan Hopes, the Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, speak and lead prayers as the 40 days heads towards its culmination at the end of lent next week. 40 days declare themselves as a peaceful prayer group but there has been some controversy over their tactics which include approaching women as they enter clinics and their alliance with extreme organisations such as Abort 67. Members of Brighton Fem Col have been approached themselves when taking treatsto the clinic. Bloomsbury Pro Choice Alliance, the key group in organising pro-choice counter protests in Bedford Square sent out a call for a show of support to send a clear message that the UK has a pro-choice majority that respects and understands the rights of individual women and couples to make decisions about when and under what circumstances they choose to have children.
Many who work in providing abortion and pregnancy services argue that in the last few months we've seen some of the worst attacks on the rights of women and couples to access abortion advice and services in the UK since the law was passed in 1967 to guarantee this right. These attacks have run the gamut of extremes from the 40 days prayer vigils to Nadine Dorries' attempt to change public perception of abortion as an industry run for profit and gain - introducing the language of the 'abortion industry' in to parliament and trying to limit the ability of BPAS and Marie Stopes to lend their expertise. Alongside this we have Abort 67 and their use of images, questionable 'science' and tactics that attempt to prevent women accessing their legal rights & the hacking and cloning attacks on BPAS websites. It was with this in mind that pro-choice supporters gathered on Friday to drown out a minority who would have their personal beliefs over-ride rights that this country protects in law.
Although there's been much debate about the numbers on both sides of the protests, Abortion Rights reckon on a peak of roughly 1000 supporters for the pro-choice demo. From what I could see, there were certainly pro-choice supporters filling the square. The atmosphere on the pro-choice side was amazing with a crowd made up of supporters from all ages and backgrounds and a strong feeling of solidarity. There was a real party atmosphere with whistles, drums, dancing and chants. Despite what some commenters on the Anti-Choice side would have you believe, there was never any threats of violence or personal attack from the pro-choice side and the protest conducted and wound up in a peaceful manner. We were certainly having more fun on our side of the barrier and the police had little to do other than spot recognisable faces on the pro-choice side.
The protest wound up once the core of the 40 days group had packed up and headed home. There was a real sense that the majority supports and recognises the importance of the preservation of our right to choose. There was a genuine sense of elation amongst our group who felt empowered and strengthened by the show of solidarity which included first time protesters and Christians who strongly disagree with 40 days aims and tactics. It was a powerful event, but it is now important to keep momentum and support for organisations that provide abortion and pregnancy advice services going. Although 40 days will draw to a close next week, the assault on our rights continues both in parliament through Dorries and her ilk and through groups like Abort 67. We must continue to raise awareness about these groups and challenge them whenever we can. As my favourite chant on Friday declared: not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate.