It made a strange chorus: on the one side, a small crowd of Catholics, intoning the rosary and singing Ave Maria, while, a few metres away, a noisy gathering of campaigners banged drums, blew whistles and chanted slogans. The venue – a genteel Georgian square in the shadow of the British Museum, central London – was also perhaps unexpected.
But if the noisy standoff between hundreds of rival anti-abortion and pro-choice protesters on Friday night was peaceful and largely good-natured, it represented the latest salvo in an increasingly fraught battle over the issue, in what Britain’s largest abortion provider has called “a new era” of challenges to abortion rights.
Activists from a group called 40 Days for Life have been holding daily prayer vigils in the square, outside a discreet clinic run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). The campaign group is part of a US-based anti-abortion network established in 2004, which has co-ordinated protests in at least 14 countries.
The group claims its protests, usually attended by only a handful of activists, are “legal, peaceful and prayerful”. But BPAS was forced to call the police earlier this month after women complained of being filmed entering the clinic, and a man from the West Midlands has pleaded guilty to hacking into the BPAS website. Vigils have been held elsewhere outside clinics; 170 people from another US-affiliated group called Helpers of God’s Precious Infants held a protest outside an east London clinic earlier this month.
40 Days for Life says it does not encourage filming members of the public, but has tweeted about a number of successful “turnarounds” – women who have been persuaded not to enter the clinic thanks to their protests, which often feature signs, candles and plastic model foetuses.
The vigil has attracted counter-demonstrations on Sundays, when the clinic is closed, by pro-choice campaigners, and last night’s larger rally, attended by about 300 Catholics including Alan Hopes, the auxiliary bishop of Westminster, provoked a similar response from pro-choice activists, who outnumbered the praying protesters perhaps two to one. Hopes said he intended to make a “principled and peaceful statement of opposition to our society’s ‘culture of death”.
Katy Ladbrook, who works in publishing, said: “I’ve been in the pro-choice movement for 10 years and I’m really worried about these people. Although they look really benign, sitting here praying, in the US they have closed down clinics with their activities.”
Maureen Cooper said she had attended “to defend the most important piece of legislation that’s been passed in my lifetime. I’m old enough to know what it was like in the days before choice and what happened to women then. I campaigned for the Steel bill [which legalised abortion in 1967] and I’m horrified that it’s having to happen again.”
A few metres away, Francisco-Javier Muñoz, a lawyer originally from Spain, was praying. “We are here to pray for the human lives that are being killed, and also for the mothers.” What of the argument that their protest might intimidate or cause distress to vulnerable women? “I think that is their personal conscience causing them distress.”
Michael D’Arcy said he had attended “just to stand in solidarity with unborn children, really”. His partner Laura Crowley said: “I don’t think it’s proper to characterise this as a woman’s issue. A lot of unborn babies are unborn women.”
While a rowdy, at times almost carnivalesque protest took place alongside them, the anti-abortion protesters stood or kneeled and prayed quietly, some clutching rosary beads. A pregnant woman kneeled in prayer next to a barrier, clutching her belly.
Hopes left at 8pm, surrounded by a tight circle of protective supporters. He refused to answer questions but released a statement, saying that where women had been persuaded not to have abortions, it was “a demonstration of God’s grace – an outcome to be welcomed”.
Darinka Aleksic of Abortion Rights, one of the organisers of the counter-rally, said: “There’s certainly been a change of climate. , one of the organisers of the counter-rally. “There’s a lot of concern about an alliance of interest between the government, which is seeking to restrict the right to choice possibly by an act on the time limit, but certainly in restricting advice to women and, on the ground, anti-choice protests like this one. It was really important that we marked our opposition to what’s going on.”
It is 7:30pm on Friday and Christina is kneeling down to pray. To her right, a group of around 500 noisy protesters, armed with whistles, glow sticks, drums and “keep your rosaries off my ovaries” signs are interrupting with a chorus of “sit down if you hate women”.
Baker, six months pregnant and accompanied by her 13-year-old brother Lorenzo, is undeterred. She’s at the 40 Days for Life prayer vigil outside the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the UK’s largest abortion provider’s headquarters in Bedford Square, central London.
“If you are anti-abortion you should stand up for voiceless children,” she says. “I’m standing up for babies.”
“The trouble is the media is so pro-choice. At 12 weeks a baby is fully formed.”
As for the noisy counter-protest, it makes her feel “sick”.
“It’s disgusting,” she says. “I don’t hate women… I am one at the end of the day.”
Christina and around 300 others were there to see Alan Hopes, the Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, who attended the prayer vigil.
Commenting afterwards, Hopes said he was there to stand up against the “culture of death”.
“The large number of people who attended the prayer vigil shows that increasing numbers are opposed to our society’s culture of death and are horrified that in 2010 almost 190,000 abortions took place in England and Wales.”
Kate Smurtwaite, vice chair of pro-choice group Abortion Rights, says she is concerned about a mainstream bishop supporting an “extremist” group.
“We think of 40 Days for Life as being an extremist OTT group,” she says. “They would hold up graphic images and engage in tactics that I would never pursue whatever my opinions were.
“They think it’s acceptable to harass individual women, making very difficult situations immeasurably worse. The reason everyone was there is they were being joined by one of the leading Catholic bishops in London, someone who has regular meetings with politicians and is seen as a community leader.
“That’s terrifying to me. They’ve been filming women coming in and out of clinics, shouting at women. When I got here I was filled with incandescent rage that these people would stand outside a clinic and hold a religious service there.”
She and fellow pro-choice picketers banged drums, blew whistles, and chanted “shame on you” and “stop harassing women” to promote their cause.
Why? Because 40 Days has been accused of filming women entering abortion clinics, handing out incorrect information and harassing women during their prayer vigils outside BPAS.
Paul, a 29-year-old Catholic, says he was told by 40 Days to put his camera away at Friday’s protest because of accusations that the group had been filming women outside clinics. “I see women outside abortion clinics,” he says. “It’s a cliché but some are literally being dragged in by their partners. A lot of people feel they have no choice.”
But the allegations about 40 Days for Life were dismissed by Robert Colquhoun, one of the founding members of the organisation in Britain, who says he knew “God was calling me” to support the group. “We don’t encourage anyone to film,” he says. “We’re here to pray for an end to abortion. Our campaign is focusing on prayer.”
So what does he think of the protesters? “The protesters range from rude to the aggressive behaviour we’ve seen on display tonight,” he replies.
Alfonso, another 40 Days for Life member, takes a different view. “The protest is good. Our campaign is working. We’re making them nervous.”
Those praying for an end to abortion at the event range from nuns to priests to young Catholics.
Nineteen-year-old Jo has done “sidewalk counselling” before, talking to women as they head into abortion clinics.
“Women don’t know what abortion is. I don’t think women are made aware,” says Jo. “Abortion is the termination of a human life.”
Jo is with her friend, 14-year-old Declan, whose views are clear. “We’re standing up for what’s right. Abortion is murder,” he tells me.
Then there’s Dr Christian Shell, proudly holding a sign picturing a foetus with the slogan ‘you take away my choice’ in capital letters; and Paulo Manca, who has brought eight of his 13 children along, including his four-year-old daughter. Is she pro-life? “She couldn’t have a conversation with you about it,” says Shell.
At the pro-choice protest, separated by a metal barrier, the attendees are just as diverse. London’s critical mass group rides past to show their support, with the Green Party’s London mayoral candidate Jenny Jones also in attendance. Jones says she’s “concerned” about any threat to the right to abortion.
Despite minor skirmishes, there’s no real trouble. The prayers end and the protests finish, but the policemen remain until the very end. “We don’t get any trouble from this lot,” says one officer. A pro-choice protester agrees, remarking as she leaves: “It’s just a stand-off really.”
So what’s next? Smurtwaite says this is just the start.
“This is the beginning I think of US-style tactics coming to the UK,” she says.
“I really hope they’ll be less successful here. Last night there were lots of Catholics on our side. They don’t even represent the mainstream when it comes to their religion. Friday’s protest was the biggest pro-choice one in my activist life-span.”