Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Brixton Hill Clinic Defence Campaign - defeating anti-abortionists in 1990

The anti-abortion movement in the UK will no doubt be emboldened by recent events in the United States, and while the scope for them to challenge current laws seems to be limited there is a risk that they may step up direct action against health services. In recent years anti-abortionists have picketed St John's Medical Centre in Loampit Vale SE13 (from 2015 and 2018) and sporadically protest in Brixton and Streatham.

These documents are from an earlier campaign that successfully stopped similar protests, at least for a while. Back in 1990, a Brixton Hill Clinic Defence Campaign was set up in response to anti-abortionists picketing the local clinic.  The Campaign was set up at a meeting at Lambeth Town Hall in July 1990. As the invite issued by the socialist group Workers Power explained:

'As you may know, anti-abortionists have been regularly picketing the Raleigh Clinic in Brixton Hill and the Leigham clinic in Leigham Court Road. Streatham. The pickets have included supporters of Operation Rescue, a US derived organisation noted for its militant and often violent tactics. The pickets take place every Saturday at Brixton Hill between 8am and 12 noon, and as far as is possible to tell, between 10am and 12 noon at Streatham on the last Saturday of the month only.

The anti-abortionists tactics have so far included leafletting and harrasing women going into the clinic.  It is vital that all those who support choice and the right of women to control their own bodies get organised against the anti- abortionists. While there are not very many of them at present, if they are left unchallenged, they will attract support and their tactics will become more and more militant. Informal counter-pickets have been happening every Saturday at Brixton Hill. Such counter-pickets need to be organised properly and built for in the Labour movement.

It has also been argued that there is a need them to be carried out with sensitivity - there is a danger that large unruly counter-picket outside a clinic would have the same deterrent effect on women seeking abortions as the anti-abortionists themselves. 

We have taken the initiative of booking a room in Lambeth Town Hall on Monday 9th July in room 121, in order to hold a meeting to discuss the way forward to defeating the anti-abortionists. We need to discuss what tactics to use and how to mobilise people against Operation Rescue. We would hope that some sort of organising committee could be constituted to organise the counter-pickets, and any other action deemed necessary. We hope everyone who is concerned about the threat that the anti-abortionists represent and wishes to organise against them will either attend or, if an organisation, send a representative'.

Invite to a meeting to 'Organise Against Operation Rescue' at Lambeth Town Hall, July 1990

In the early protests the police did not seem to have been interested and when an anti-abortionist had run towards the clinic and been stopped by a counter-demonstrator it was the latter who was arrested (though later released without charge).  

At the meeting at Lambeth Town Hall the main political difference was on how to respond - representatives attending from the alphabet soup of left/anarchist groups active in Brixton at the time. Broadly speaking the Socialist Workers Party wished to mobilise counter protestors at the clinic. Others present - the majority at the meeting - felt that having a crowd there, even a sympathetic one, would be very uncomfortable for women attending. It was agreed to have enough of a presence at the Clinic to challenge the anti-abortionists and if necessary escort women past them, but not to seek to mobilise large numbers directly outside it. Instead, efforts would be put into preventing Operation Rescue getting to the Clinic in the first place

A leaflet given out at the clinic declared 'A Woman's Right to Choose... Raleigh Nursing Home is one of the few places in Lambeth that performs abortions. We are here today outside it because we believe that every woman should have the right to control over her own body. That means she should have the right to an abortion if she wants one.

Unfortunately there are some people who seek to prevent women from exercising that right- by force, by threats and by terror. You may have seen them here too. As often as not they are the ones on their knees. You may have been given one of their glossy horror pamphlets full of photographs of "dead
babies". If we had the same vast wealth behind us as they do - and the same twisted logic - you could be reading an equally glossy pamphlet full of pictures of dead women; just some of the hundreds of thousands who die every year throughout the world whilst attempting backstreet abortion. Because that is the reality in countries without even Britain's limited legal abortion facilities.

[...] we aren't trying to frighten anybody away. We don't even want to be here ourselves. It can be traumatic enough for women to come for an abortion without a crowd of people on the gate as they go in. We are only here because if we weren't the militant anti-abortionists - who in the United States have resorted to fire bombing clinics - will count it as a victory'

Meanwhile a crew drawn from Workers Power, Red Action and local anarchists, all of whom had a presence in the area, put in place the plan to stop Operation Rescue in their tracks. These people were in effect the backbone of Anti Fascist Action in South London and weren't mucking around. As the anti-abortionists made their way up from Brixton station they were ambushed, and as they used to say 'acquainted with the pavement'. It was a long time before they returned to Brixton Hill.

A report on the campaign from Workers Power, July 1990

A letter from the campaign from City Limits magazine, 2 September 1990

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