‘If we can do it, you can do it’: US anti-abortion groups ramp up activities in UK

<span>Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Anti-abortion groups are stepping up efforts to spread US-style abortion politics to the UK, ramping up spending with the ambition of shaking up political life beyond American borders.

Related: Florida, abortion refuge in US south, poised to pass six-week ban

Fresh off their historic victory in bringing about the end of the constitutional right to abortion in the US, these groups are importing familiar tactics, including public protests and demonstrations, anti-abortion counseling centers or so-called “crisis pregnancy centers”, and the cultivation of ties with clerical leaders.

These efforts are meeting significant opposition in Britain, where abortion access is widely supported and generally available up to 24 weeks and parliament recently passed legislation targeting harassment outside clinics. But reproductive rights advocacy groups are warily observing the US movement’s expansion.

“That US Christian right and anti-abortion groups are establishing bases in the UK means that the issue of abortion – and related sexual and reproductive rights – will become increasingly contested in public debate and at a political level, even when there is broad social acceptance for the UK abortion model,” says Neil Datta, executive director of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Health.

“We can expect that the successes they have had in the US in these areas to be adapted to a UK context in the coming years.”

‘If we can do it – you can do it’

“Rethink Abortion Day,” a seminar that took place in February at St Mary’s College Oscott in Birmingham, England, illustrated the cross-border reach of some of the most prominent US-based activist groups.

The event was aimed at motivating dozens of attendees to engage in anti-abortion activism. Fast-paced and interactive presentations urged them to participate in clinic demonstrations. Activists distributed pamphlets with anti-abortion talking points and rebuttals to pro-choice positions and during breakout sessions audience members rehearsed these arguments. Apart from the Catholic entities co-hosting the event – St Mary’s College Oscott is a Catholic seminary – the four groups principally involved in presentations were all UK affiliates of US-based organizations, and some presenters had deep ties to other major groups in America’s Christian nationalist movement.

Long a feature of abortion politics in the US, anti-abortion protests at UK clinics and hospitals have surged in recent years, and the presenters at the Birmingham event can claim much of the credit. They included Ben Thatcher, director of March for Life UK, a spinoff of the US-based March for Life, which draws tens of thousands of participants to Washington DC annually. Another speaker, Dave Brennan, is the director of Brephos, a project of the US-based Center for Bio Ethical Reform (CBR) that aims to help “churches respond to abortion”.

Anti-abortion activists participate in March for Life rally in Washington, DC in January 2023.
Anti-abortion activists participate in March for Life rally in Washington DC in January 2023. Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

“We must acknowledge that we are in spiritual warfare for our souls … and HE [Satan] is determined,” Brennan, who devotes much of his effort to clerical outreach, advised conference-goers.

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, the first presenter of the day, helps lead the UK division of the US-based 40 Days for Life, a Texas-based group that specializes in training protesters and organizing anti-abortion clinic demonstrations. The group also runs a “university”, an online program where, for $497, users can access training videos on recruiting fellow protesters and performing sidewalk “counseling”, obtain anti-abortion signs and materials, and receive coaching from the 40 Days for Life staff. The group now claims to operate more than 1,000 branches in 65 countries.

40 Days for Life started its UK activities with campaigns in Northern Ireland in 2009, and now boasts at least 15 chapters in the UK. Its leader, Robert Colquhoun, received support for his work when he enrolled in The Leadership Institute’s International School of Fundraising. The Leadership Institute, a Virginia-based organization, offers various forms of training and networking opportunities to rightwing politicians and activists in the US and around the world. In the fiscal year 2019, according to publicly available tax forms, the organization spent $92,494 on “educational seminars” and $25,871 on grantmaking in Europe, along with substantial sums in the Middle East, east Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and elsewhere.

“We’ve seen a real uptick in protest activity over this year,” Katherine O’Brien, a spokesperson for the non-profit British Pregnancy Advisory Services, told the Guardian. “Our fear with Roe v Wade being overturned is not only has it inspired anti-abortion activists globally, but also that American anti-abortion organizations may have a pool of money they won’t need to spend in the US and it will divert it here and around the world.”

Our fear with Roe v.Wade being overturned is … that American anti-abortion organizations may have a pool of money … it will divert it here and around the world

Katherine O’Brien

The motivations of these groups are clear. At the UK March for Life in September 2022, Sean Carney, the US CEO of 40 Days for Life, stood in front of a banner with the slogan, “Life from Conception, No Exception”, and referenced the overturning of Roe v Wade. “If we can do it,” he told the crowd assembled in London, “you can do it.”

Playing a long game

In the US, the extended culture war has given rise to a massive political and legal advocacy infrastructure to prosecute the case against abortion rights. At the center of that infrastructure is the Alliance Defending Freedom, a rightwing legal advocacy group. Greg Scott, vice-president of communications for the ADF, told the Guardian that the organization’s budget exceeded $102m in the fiscal year 2021-2022; in 2018, the figure was approximately $60m. According to the ADF’s publicly available tax data for 2020, the most recent year on file, the organization claimed close to $10m on overseas expenditures; in the fiscal year 2015-2016, the figure was just over $3m. ADF declined to answer questions from the Guardian about its more recent overseas expenditures.

The ADF is a key player behind a series of supreme court cases that have eroded the separation of church and state, including the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which led to the overturning of Roe v Wade. It also brought the current case seeking to revoke FDA approval for mifepristone, one of the drugs used for medication abortions, and is arguing a supreme court case that seeks to give business owners the right to refuse service to LGBTQ+ couples in the name of religious liberty.

Consistent with messaging from other rightwing religious organizations, the ADF presents itself as a champion of freedom of religion and speech. “We are dedicated to the promotion of fundamental freedoms for all, and ADF International’s efforts are focused on areas where human rights are under threat,” ADF International’s legal communications director, Elyssa Koren, told the Guardian. Its critics, however, see it as an organization whose main focus is to impose conservative Christian ideas on the population through the legal system. The ADF has played a role, for example, in the promotion of anti-sodomy laws around the world, including a law in Belize that, before it was overturned, made gay sex punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment.

Father Sean Gough and Isabel Vaughan-Spruce at the Birmingham magistrates’ court in February. Both were accused of protesting outside an abortion clinic inside a buffer zone and represented by the US-based Alliance Defending Freedom.
Father Sean Gough and Isabel Vaughan-Spruce at the Birmingham magistrates’ court in February. Both were accused of protesting outside an abortion clinic inside a buffer zone and represented by the US-based Alliance Defending Freedom. Photograph: Jacob King/PA

Already a key player in the US, the ADF long had its eye on the rest of the world. With offices in cities including Vienna, Brussels, Strasbourg, London and Geneva, the goals of ADF International rely on some of the same novel legal arguments and concepts of “free speech” and religious liberty. According to the EU Transparency Register, the ADF spent €585,000 ($636,000) on lobbying in the fiscal year 2021-2022. Vaughan-Spruce is one of the public faces of this effort to expand the visibility of the anti-abortion right wing, under the guise of free speech. Last fall, police charged her with four counts of breaching a buffer zone. The ADF UK, which provided her legal counsel, cast the charges as persecution for “the crime of silent prayer”. Those charges were eventually dropped, but she was rearrested last week for violating the same buffer zone.

Father Paul Gough, a Roman Catholic priest who also spoke at the Birmingham event, was charged with “protesting and engaging in an act that is intimidating to service users” of a Birmingham clinic. His charges were also overturned, with the help of ADF. He subsequently appeared on the Tucker Carlson show on Fox News. “You know, I was praying for free speech, which I believe is threatened in the United Kingdom,” he said.

“We are seeing a steady increase with anti-choice harassment,” said Louise McCudden, a UK-based adviser with MSI Reproductive Choices. “We know that anti-choice groups across the UK have been emboldened by the repeal of Roe v Wade, and that they like to copy US-style tactics.”

We are seeing a steady increase with anti-choice harassment

Louise McCudden

In the UK, where the right to abortion enjoys wide support, the growing anti-abortion activity around reproductive health facilities has sparked a backlash that appears to be limiting the movement’s policy gains. The UK supreme court recently recognized that harassment around healthcare facilities violates the rights of those seeking reproductive and sexual health services and information, and the UK parliament recently moved toward legislating the establishment of buffer zones around abortion clinics.

In addition to protest tactics and messaging, US organizations are contributing to the influx of anti-abortion counseling centers or so-called “crisis pregnancy centers”. There are about 4,000 such operations in the US, the majority affiliated with large networks like Heartbeat International, which has four affiliates in the UK. According to an investigation by the BBC’s Panorama, at least 57 such centers operate in the UK, more than one-third of which provide misleading or unethical advice. One US-based organization, Stanton Healthcare, which operates a clinic in Belfast, recently expanded into Scotland. In 2018, a Times of London reporter visited the Belfast clinic and recorded a conversation in which she was told abortion would make her breasts “fill with cancer” and was warned, “You could get your womb perforated, you might be left sterile.”

O’Brien, from the British Pregnancy Advisory Services, cautions it would be dangerous to underestimate the potential impact of these groups. “We know that anti-abortion groups are well funded, well organised and well connected with influential parliamentarians,” she says.

“They are going into schools, into universities, and have a real drive to recruit the ‘next generation’ of anti-abortion activists. They know they are playing the long game, and they believe that they will win, even if it takes decades.”