Around 400 pro-choice protesters staged a loud and lively picket of Tory MP Ann Widdecombe’s anti-abortion meeting in London yesterday. She is speaking around Britain on her “Passion for Life” tour – which focuses on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill currently in parliament.
Amendments to the bill are likely to seek to restrict abortion rights.
Protesters chanted, “Pro life – that’s a lie, you don’t care if women die” and “Not the church, not the state – women must decide their fate”.
The diversity of the demonstrators contrasted with the overwhelmingly old, white and male audience that filed past into the meeting. Widdecombe herself was forced to go in through the back door to avoid the protests.
Around 15 protesters got inside, chanting “No return to the backstreets” and heckling the speakers. Charlotte Bence was one of them. “When the speakers said things that were untrue we got up and challenged them,” she said.
“Veteran anti-abortionist David Alton said that most people agreed with them on abortion – so we pointed out that actually 83 percent of people in Britain support abortion rights.
“We really made our presence felt and completely disrupted the meeting.”
Louise Hutchins is the campaign co-ordinator for Abortion Rights, which called the picket. She told Socialist Worker, “The people in the meeting want to drive back women’s fundamental rights – it’s an anti woman agenda. They are a tiny minority in Britain, where an overwhelming majority support a woman’s right to choose.”
Protesters came from a wide range of groups and backgrounds. Many brought banners – including Camden Unison, South East Region TUC, the PCS Defra branch, Goldsmiths college and Soas.
Alex travelled from Manchester to join the protest. She told Socialist Worker, “I’m here to defend abortion rights because it’s a basic human right. The law is not perfect now, but – as limited as it is – it was still a step forward.”
“I defend abortion rights for the same reason I defend LGBT rights,” said Luke Spyropoulos from the London School of Economics. “I’m against the conservative ‘anti-sex’ league which tries to dictate to people what they can and can’t do with their own bodies.”
Gemma had helped organise the protest. “People presume that it’s already easy for women to access abortions,” she said. “But this is propaganda. Actually it’s already very hard and we don’t need it to be made any harder”.
Many expressed their shock that abortion rights are under attack. “I can’t believe this attack on women’s rights is happening now,” said Josephine, a midwife.
“Lowering the time limit for abortion would mean that women would either have to go through an unwanted pregnancy, risk an unsafe abortion which could lead to death or injury, or travel abroad to get an abortion.”
“It’s frustrating that we still have to fight,” said Marion Carty from the TUC. “I’ve had friends that had to have backstreet abortions – we can’t let the clock be turned back to that time.”
Cath Elliott is the branch women’s officer for Norfolk county Unison branch. She told Socialist Worker, “Unison has over one million women members. A number of those women will have had an abortion.
“We all know what happened before the 1967 Abortion Act in Britain and what happens around the world where women don’t have legal abortion – they risk death by being forced to the backstreet.”
The experience of women globally, in countries where abortion rights are restricted, adds to the urgency of the need to defend abortion rights in Britain.
Jennifer Forbes from the CWU postal workers union told Socialist Worker, “I’m going to Nicaragua tomorrow – which outlawed all abortion in 2006. I’m going from the CWU to build links between unions and women’s groups to give support to people fighting for women’s rights in Nicaragua.”
Itisha Giri works in London and is originally from Nepal. She told Socialist Worker, “In Nepal and India women are forced to the backstreet because they don’t have access to legal, safe abortion. This lack of rights also means that women are forced to have large families, and has a devastating impact on their health and wellbeing.
“Defending abortion rights is especially important for victims of rape. Rape is used as a weapon of war – why should the victims then be forced to have a child they don’t want?”
Protesters are now preparing for the next meetings in Ann Widdecombe’s tour – Liverpool on Tuesday 12 February and Coventry on Wednesday 13 February.
For a full list of the meetings and protests go to » Dates of Ann Widdecombe's anti-abortion speaking tour
For information, union motions and campaigning materials go to » www.abortionrights.org.uk