What overturning Roe v Wade could mean for abortion in the UK
UK Christian Right groups with strong US links look set to step up activity if Roe v Wade is overturned this week
An end to Roe v Wade, the law that keeps abortion legal throughout the US, could have implications for abortion access in the UK, campaigners warn.
Last month’s leaked draft opinion foretold the overturning of Roe v Wade – with a final decision expected tomorrow.
On the surface, abortion rights in the UK may appear to be far more secure than in the US. Some 90% of Brits are said to support them and MPs recently voted to keep allowing home abortions in England – and while abortion was a more contentious political issue in Northern Ireland, it’s been recently decriminalised there too.
But campaigners say the situation is far more complicated.
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“The leaked report from the US should serve as a reminder that we in the UK can never take reproductive rights for granted – until abortion is treated like all other healthcare,” said Louise McCudden of the abortion and contraception provider MSI Reproductive Choices, formerly Marie Stopes.
“It’s also a timely reminder that abortion laws and access to services in the UK, although better than in many countries, are far from perfect.” For example, she said, “it is not right that abortion still sits within criminal law and people must obtain sign-off from two doctors before they can access essential healthcare”.
Katherine O’Brien, associate director at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), agrees that hard-won abortion rights in the UK could still come under threat.
“The 1967 Abortion Act, and our ability to end a pregnancy, lie in the hands of politicians, and over the past 10 years we have seen a number of parliamentary bids to restrict abortion safely and legally,” she explains.
She says that while they’ve managed to defeat these attempts so far, if the anti-abortion movement were to gain the monumental “victory” of overturning Roe v Wade, groups in the UK and across the world will “definitely be emboldened”.
“These groups have strong links with their US counterparts, and we would be concerned that they will escalate activity if Roe v Wade is overturned,” explains O’Brien.
The Christian Right that has pushed to restrict abortion rights in the US is more active in the UK than many think, openDemocracy’s own reporting has found.
We revealed in 2020 how 28 US Christian Right organisations had spent at least $280m around the world since 2007. More of this money was spent in Europe than in any other region, although these groups’ financial filings do not detail how much they spent in the UK specifically.
One of the biggest spenders in Europe is the anti-abortion group Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). It planned to preach in eight UK cities in 2020 but arenas pulled out amid outcry over comments by BGEA president Franklin Graham, son of the famous televangelist Billy Graham, which included descriptions of Islam as “evil” and same-sex marriage as orchestrated by Satan.
After the venues cancelled the bookings, Franklin Graham said: “As Americans, we should be concerned about the rise of secularism and the suppression of religious freedom and freedom of speech in the UK… What happens there often makes its way to the United States.” The BGEA took venues to court for breaking the terms of a contract and the dispute was settled with Graham being allowed to resume the tour.
Another US group that’s long tried to influence classic ‘culture war’ cases in the UK is the anti-abortion ‘dark money’-funded legal army Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). openDemocracy revealed in 2019 that its international wing had spent nearly half a million pounds on lobbying in the UK over just two years. The group does not disclose who its donors are, and has even gone to the US Supreme Court to defend donor secrecy.
ADF’s lawyers have previously said they are working to ensure “that bad European precedents don’t spread further in Europe, then across the sea to America”. It worked on the high-profile 'gay cake' cases in both the UK and US, defending Christian bakers using free speech arguments.
ADF has also publicly opposed protest-free ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics and supported calls for “freedom of conscience” provisions to enable medical staff to object to providing legal abortion services. And it claims the UK government adopted its recommendations on free speech and academic freedom at universities.
Another key actor is Christian Concern, a UK evangelical organisation that has worked previously with US Christian Right legal giants including ADF.
Christian Concern went to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge the government's home abortion policy, initially rolled out to remove the need for in-person appointments during COVID.
When the government launched a consultation on extending the policy beyond the pandemic, it was flooded with copycat submissions from anti-abortion groups. Of the four campaign groups linked to the most consultation responses three oppose abortion – Right to Life (8,424 entries), the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC, 288), and Christian Concern (84) – and one, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS, 240), is pro-choice.*
UK rights advocates have told openDemocracy that these are the groups to look out for. When the consultation on home abortion closed, Kerry Abel, chair of the campaigning group Abortion Rights UK was concerned that these few vocal, organised anti-abortion groups had influenced the outcome of the consultation, adding “the situation has become incredibly politicised”.
Despite the initial success of Christian Concern’s campaign – MPs voted to extend home abortions last month.
"We need the pro-choice majority to make their voices heard”
Given the strength and coordination of these US-backed legal armies, O’Brien says, campaigners here anticipate fresh attempts in the UK Parliament to restrict abortion access if Roe v Wade is scrapped.
O’Brien cites a recent interview with cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg where he described women’s ability to access safe, legal abortion care as the “saddest aspect of modern British life”. She believes this is indicative of a backlash against abortion that could ramp up further.
“Since the end of lockdown restrictions, anti-abortion clinic protests have been increasing, both in regularity, size and aggression,” she adds.
McCudden says MSI is already seeing the same increase outside its own clinics: “It may well be in part because anti-choice groups feel so emboldened by this Roe v Wade news.”
O’Brien reiterates, however: “We live in a pro-choice country, where the vast majority of people support a woman’s right to safe, legal abortion care.
“If Roe v Wade is overturned, we need the pro-choice majority in the UK to make their voices heard.”
* This piece was amended to list all four organisations that were linked to the most consultation responses
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