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US-style anti-abortion protests are spreading to Europe

DW logo DW 10/23/2022 Ines Eisele

With protests against abortion rights becoming increasingly aggressive, countries such as England, Wales and Spain are drawing up laws to protect people at clinics.

Anti-abortion activists are often fundamentalist Christians © Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA/picture alliance Anti-abortion activists are often fundamentalist Christians

On January 20, 2023, hundreds of thousands of opponents of abortion rights are expected to gather in the US capital, Washington D.C., for the "March for Life." The march takes place annually on or around the anniversary of the January 22, 1973, Roe v. Wade decision, which had protected abortion rights in the United States until this June, when the US Supreme Court overturned the decision. Several states have since further restricted abortion.

Though the march is the biggest and most famous anti-abortion event, there are many such rallies in the United States and around the world. Many organizations that were founded to oppose abortion rights in the United States now have branches abroad. One of the biggest organizations in the world for opponents of reproductive rights is 40 Days for Life, a Christian organization that campaigns against abortion in dozens of countries.

In October, there was an anti-abortion march in Munich © Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA/picture alliance In October, there was an anti-abortion march in Munich

In addition to organizing demonstrations, groups also protest outside clinics, approaching pregnant people and trying to talk them out of abortions. Such groups are often accused of harassment and intimidation.

"You're probably talking relatively small numbers of people, maybe between three and eight people stand outside the clinic, they'll usually stand immediately outside the gate," Rachael Clarke, the chief of staff at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which offers reproductive counseling, told DW.

"They often have signs, sometimes with pictures of fetuses on them," Clarke said. "Sometimes they're quite graphic; sometimes they're religious. They will often hand out leaflets that have false medical information. They will often have rosary beads in different colors: pink and blue. They might call the women 'mum.' They might follow them down the street."

Clarke said it was an issue across Britain. "Apart from two weeks at the beginning of the pandemic," she said, "there's not been a week since I started in this job in 2017 where I haven't had emails from our clinic managers saying: 'There are people outside. Women are being harassed. Can you tell me what to do?'"

'They feel intimidated'

BPAS has long campaigned for 150-meter (500-foot) buffer zones around abortion clinics. Patients "feel judged," Clarke said. "They're distressed. They feel intimidated."

On October 18, a majority of British MPs backed a law that would make it a crime in England and Wales to harass, obstruct or interfere with any person who is going to an abortion clinic. Approval from the upper house of Parliament is expected. Scotland is examining similar legislation.

Such laws have existed in parts of the US, Canada and Australia for some time. In South Africa, it is also a criminal offense to try to prevent a legal abortion or hinder access to a clinic.

The US anti-abortion movement has spread around the world © John Nacion/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance The US anti-abortion movement has spread around the world

Spain criminalizes harassment

In April, Spain passed a law that effectively criminalizes gatherings in front of abortion clinics, though proximity is not defined. Anybody who attempts to prevent people from exercising their right to abortion through harassment, insults, intimidation or threats faces a jail term of three to 12 months or community service.

According to a 2018 survey by ACAI, the Spanish association of abortion clinics, 89% of people seeking to end pregnancies had encountered pressure from opponents of reproductive rights. Doctors and staff who work in abortion clinics have also faced pressures.

The German Medical Association reports that increasing pressure from anti-abortion campaigns is one reason why fewer practitioners are willing to perform the procedure.

Clarke dismisses the argument that buffer zones infringe on abortion opponents' right to free expression. "It's not about stopping anti-abortion groups from having their views," Clarke said. "It's about simply saying that, in order to balance their rights to freedom of speech and women's rights to access health care with privacy and confidentiality, they can't stand immediately outside. They need to move down the road. And that's what that 150 meters is for."

The US anti-abortion movement has spread around the world © John Nacion/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance The US anti-abortion movement has spread around the world

Telemedicine is an option for some people seeking abortions — including in Germany. At the beginning of the pandemic, people who were pregnant for less than nine weeks in Britain were granted access to pills for medical abortion via virtual consultations. They were able to take the pills at home.

"For those women for whom privacy is really important or who may struggle to attend, who can't drive, you've got child care or work responsibilities, that's been a really positive move," Clarke said.

This article was originally published in German.

Author: Ines Eisele

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