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Galway pro-choice march
via Galway Pro-Choice

Pro-choice activists fight back against Ireland’s anti-abortion protests

Since the repeal of the country’s restrictive abortion laws, anti-choice groups have been picketing clinics and making bogus crisis pregnancy websites

In a historic move last week, Ireland rolled out its first legalised abortion services. This followed May 2018’s landmark referendum vote to repeal its strict abortion laws, where 66.4 per cent of voters called to repeal the constitution’s eighth amendment, which outlawed abortion in cases including rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother. Legislation passed in December that allows abortion access up to 12 weeks.

While many celebrated the liberalisation of Ireland’s laws, anti-abortion campaigners protested. The Galvia West medical centre in Galway last week saw anti-choice activists gather outside its doors with banners and prayer candles. Messages on signs read: “Real doctors don’t terminate their patients” and “Say no to abortions in Galway”.

Yesterday (January 7), another demonstration took place outside of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, Louth. Signs ranged from ‘Abortion is murder’ to ‘Let him be born’, ‘Killing in progress’, and ‘Let her be born’. Anti-choice Twitter and Facebook accounts were reportedly sharing details of a termination they claimed was happening at the hospital.

Pro-choice activists have expressed concern for the picket lines outside clinics, GPs and hospitals. Aisling Hayes, a spokesperson for Galway Pro-choice, told Dazed: “We at Galway Pro-choice strongly condemn the actions of those at the Galvia West medical centre, and urge the implementation of exclusion zones immediately. The people of Ireland voted for compassionate care at home, and this should be respected.” The group is planning to explore the option of having clinic escorts outside the Galway medical centre.

Approximately 20 women reportedly sought out terminations on the first day services opened Wednesday last week (January 2). GPs are able to provide abortions for people up to nine weeks pregnant, and hospitals can perform abortions between nine and 12 weeks. After the 12 week threshold, abortions are available in exceptional circumstances. Accessing abortion will be mostly free to residents in the Republic of Ireland – it was announced last week that those wishing to access terminations from Northern Ireland would have to pay around 450 euro for a procedure at one Dublin clinic.

Speaking of yesterday’s demonstrations outside a hospital at a press briefing, health minister Simon Harris told reporters: “In many ways, I think it is quite sad, to be honest, that we have to… that people would endeavour to intimidate people, be they doctors or nurses or midwives, or people going in and out of our health services… is indeed upsetting.”

Harris described anti-abortion campaigners organising to harass people accessing abortion and the online discourse as “despicable” and “offensive”. Amnesty International and Together for Yes (the official campaign for the repeal of the eighth amendment on abortion) have called for Harris to follow through on his promise to include exclusion zones in legislation.

A blueprint for exclusion zones outside clinics and venues offering services is already in place in Ealing, west London, where a buffer zone was set up outside the Marie Stopes clinic to protect people from persistent protesters. This was voted in by the local council following tireless campaigning by pro-choice activists. Anna Veglio-White, founder of pro-choice campaign and clinic escort group Sister Supporter, says of the actions in Ireland: “This, if not what we experience in England and in other parts of the world, demonstrates how drastically and urgently buffer zone legislation needs to be introduced.”

“Outside the clinic is not the place or time for people to forcefully inflict their opinions on others” – Anna Veglio-White, Sister Supporter

“Outside the clinic is not the place or time for people to forcefully inflict their opinions on others. The place for that was during the referendum, and the people of Ireland made their choice. Now that needs to be respected and women and pregnant people in Ireland need to access these vital services without fear of harassment or intimidation,” she continued.

The difference for staff and patients in Ealing, with the UK’s first ever buffer zone, has been “immeasurable”, according to Veglio-White. “Entering the clinic is no longer a severely traumatic experience, and the service users are free to follow through with the decision they have made for themselves.”

Abortion was recently decriminalised in the Isle of Man, where incoming legislation includes policy for access zones to be established around medical centres to prevent harassment of women.

“Abortion providers in the UK know that even in places where there is a strong pro-choice sentiment, women often still have to face anti-abortion protesters immediately outside the clinic gate,” Rachael Clarke, the public affairs and advocacy manager for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, tells Dazed.

“Women have the right to access healthcare information and services without fear, intimidation, or further distress,” says Clarke.

BPAS, alongside British medical groups like the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the British Medical Association support safe access zones around clinics and hospitals that provide abortion services.

“Women have the right to access healthcare information and services without fear, intimidation, or further distress” – Rachael Clarke, BPAS 

Research by the Westminster government found that in the last two years, one in 10 sites that provide abortion services in England and Wales have experienced anti-abortion protests. Reports detailed people being followed or obstructed as they attempt to access services, handed leaflets with false medical claims, being called ‘mum’, and being told that abortion is murder.

Rosa*, 28, travelled from Galway to access abortion services at an east London clinic in 2017. Arriving straight off of her flight, she found herself “descended upon” by a set of older women and men with rosary beads and leaflets about links to breast cancer (a claim that has been debunked) and gory images of foetuses. “They offered to pay for my taxi to a clinic down the road that they were running – they said they would give me a free ultrasound and counselling to help me and my baby. I was in no state or situation to be having a child, and I had long made up my mind. I’ve always been passionately pro-choice, but this was really overwhelming and traumatising. I think I’m quite strong and I found their persistence really horrible.

“It’s predatory, when someone is going through something that’s already so tough.”

Pro-choice activists have also condemned anti-abortion groups they believe are behind websites mimicking the national ‘My Options’ sites by the Health Service Executive, in an attempt to mislead people seeking terminations. The HSE’s site offers guidance and support for accessing abortion. One bogus website, with a misleadingly similar URL myoptions.website, details services such as free ultrasounds and links to (widely discredited) information on cancer and abortion.

Dazed rang the helpline provided on the myoptions.website, and was subsequently called back by Eamon Murphy, a known anti-abortion activist in Dublin. Over email, Murphy asserted that they were providing information not readily available to people in Ireland wanting to end pregnancies. “Millions of women die because media collude in lying,” he wrote, providing a YouTube link to a presentation titled ‘Cancer cover up: Women die’!, Planned Parenthood release forms, and a chapter from Women’s Health After Abortion by anti-choice author and professor Elizabeth Ring-Cassidy which asserts health issues caused by terminations (debunked widely elsewhere by science and medicine).

Murphy detailed services provided by his project as “free ultrasound, crisis counselling in a compassionate manner enabling fully informed consent, emergency accommodation and financial assistance where needed” as well as supposed “post abortion treatment and assistance to litigate against abortion doctors who abuse women”.

“Some unreliable agencies may not be upfront about their intentions and may try to influence a person’s decision. The HSE recommends that people should only visit a recognised or HSE-funded unplanned pregnancy counselling agency,” an official statement from HSE said.

Danielle Roberts, a campaigner for Northern Irish group Alliance for Choice, was a clinic escort for the now-closed Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast. One year into Marie Stopes opening, clinic escorts were brought in after the persistent harassment of clients by protesters. Roberts, along with other volunteers, worked in paris with GoPro cameras and carried walkie talkies to speak with the clinic, which had a panic button. Escorts endured some acts of physical violence from anti-choice protesters.

“We mostly escorted people out of the clinics – many people didn’t ask for an escort going in but wanted one coming out having gone through the group of people outside, which really illustrates how bad it can get,” Roberts said. “They stood next to the clinic door, tried to block it, and held an A-frame banner with graphic images. People would be praying outside. They would shout ‘we have christened your baby Michael’. They created as many obstacles as possible to keep people out of the clinic.”

Anti-choice group Precious Life also set up Stanton Healthcare Clinic, a crisis pregnancy agency, to try divert people there.

Roberts reports that protesters would keep a record of people coming in and their descriptions, to deduce who was attending their second appointment – to receive their second and final abortion pill – and approach them. By law in Northern Ireland, harassment can only be claimed if it’s the same perpetrator more than twice, so anti-choice campaigners kept a record to ensure one individual  never approached someone more than once. The clinic closed in 2017, as the Marie Stopes organisation planned to focus on referrals for pregnant people from Northern Ireland. Alliance for Choice, the Northern Irish campaign group, are working towards full decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, which has some of the most restrictive laws on abortion in Europe.

People in Ireland have begun organising online, offering support and escorting services to people wishing to go to clinics, under the hashtag #SiulLiom – meaning “walk with me”, in Irish.

Over 200 doctors have signed up to provide abortion services in the first week of the law, however, four counties – Sligo, Leitrim, Carlow and Offaly – have yet to have any health professional sign up. Pro-choice group Lawyers for Choice told the New York Times this would most affect rural women, traveling bigger distances to access healthcare. Issues with the current legislation continue to be railed against, such as the three-day waiting period and the cost for Northern Irish people.