Outside University College Hospital, in the heart of Bloomsbury, “Holborn for choice” are doing it hard. There’s three or four of them, with a handmade banner, and handing out a makeshift leaflet, campaigning for safe, legal and NHS-provided abortion. They’re LSE and London students, and they’re dealing with something more fatal to a protester than hostility — indifference. No one is taking their leaflets, because abortion in the UK is already safe, legal and free on the NHS. So why the protest?

“We started during the 40 Days campaign, as a counter-protest,” says Erica, a science student. “When that was over, the main protest wrapped up. We kept going — we just changed our name.”

The “40 Days for Life” protest was an anti-abortion “vigil” organised across the Western world by fundamentalist Christian anti-abortion groups, at the entrance to clinics, both those providing only terminations, and those offering a wider range of services.

So-called vigils are nothing new, but the “40 Days” campaign was something more. It used the time-limited period to gain an extra burst of fanaticism from its followers, pushing them to confront women entering the clinics, yell abuse, wave plastic foetuses and worse. Its foot soldiers were the usual types — in the US, strident Christian families, bused-in home-schooler graduates and the like.

In London, it was overwhelmingly lonely young men and women, not a few of them Asian or African students from conservative backgrounds. Most people will shy away from yelling “baby killer” in the face of already distressed young women, so such groups treat the protests as a conditional initiation –recruit the young and isolated, love-bomb them in cultish fashion, and then threaten to withdraw the love if they won’t step up.

The techniques — well documented in studies such as Randall Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory — tend to push such “foot soldiers” to ever-greater extremes; in the UK some measure of reserve remains. In the US, there is no such safety catch — the protests are vile and frightening, even at a distance. During the height of the protests in London, a larger group of LSE students (from which “Holborn for Choice” emerged), formed to counter-protest, and slowly, counter-protests grew in other cities, where “40 Days” harassments were taking place (ironically, the “40 Days” campaign had much of its presence wiped in the memory, by the bizarre anti-Joseph Kony “40 days and 40 nights” phenomenon that swept the world).

But the counter-protests were few, far between, and a lot less vigorous than the “40 Days” protest itself. They turned up once or twice, made their presence felt, and departed. The protests in Bloomsbury — at the epicentre of half a dozen universities — were the most sustained. But even they wrapped up, leaving only a handful, who seemed to feel that they just couldn’t let it go at that, that some sort of manifestation had to be made.The “40 Days of Life” campaign and the less-than-impressive counter-protest — both made something of an appearance in Australia — marked, for me, the culmination of some questions I’d had regarding the resurgent anti-abortion movement for some time. Last month something else kicked it into touch — of all things, the death of Vidal Sassoon, hairdresser to the stars.

Before he went to LA, Sassoon, a London Jewish boy, had been a member (at 17 years of age) of “43 Group”, an anti-fascist squad, largely composed of leftist Jewish ex-servicemen, who went toe-to-toe with Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, as they tried to regroup in the postwar East End. Mosley’s “union” group had started a campaign of harassing Jewish shopkeepers, displaced refugees and the like, and the “43 Group” were presented with something you rarely get in politics — a clear and unquestionable course of action.

Seeing the “40 Days” protests, not merely in London, but in cities across the US, it seemed to me that they presented a similar challenge — not for the cricket bats and fists with which 43 Group scattered the fascists, but certainly with vigorous physical push back — a toe-to-toe confrontation with groups who abuse the privilege of public land to harass and terrify. Some light squaddism, forming some sort of corridor between the vigilantes and the clinic users, would have been more than justified.

Yet nothing of this sort emerged, and I wonder why. There’s no shortage of people willing to take direct action on environmental issues, abseiling power stations, etc, occupying the forests, etc, yet here is a clear and present danger to a hard-won social good, and the opposition is allowed to trample all over it — and push it backwards. On websites devoted to “40 Days”, the vigilantes bragged about how many women they’d persuaded to turn back. The energy and vigor that once went into the campaign to decriminalise abortion has flowed to the other side. There’s absolutely no question that this movement is winding back the access to safe, legal and affordable termination. So why has it not been seen as a political emergency, prompting action from the left and from feminists?

There’s various possible explanations, and they overlap. It’s always harder to inspire people to fight defence than offence — and in winning the struggle many are willing to hand over defence to the state (even when it is accurately assessed as substantially patriarchal). Abortion is a subject many don’t want to think about over much, and there are a lot of causes that present less contradictory and difficult emotions to deal with. The “40 Days” vigilantes live off a simple world view, which licenses cruelty, intimidation and violence to those actually present. The safe/legal/affordable abortion movement of the ’70s was driven by the spectre of dangerous and illegal abortions — a defensive movement has to contend with issues of trimesters, time limits, late-term procedures and the like.

But from the other side, there are less comfortable questions. Have the progressive social movements become so dephysicalised and despatialised that the politics of the street no longer have a real and visceral meaning? The “40 Days” vigilantes meet ceaselessly — in church, in prayer groups, in meetings. Whatever use they make of new media, they live in a world of the face-to-face and the manifest.

The social classes from which progressives come have become so oriented to the mediated, the hypertextual, to abstracted cultural (which functions in many ways, as a kind of God for them) and so unwilling to admit that such changes have really changed the world, that they’ve alienated themselves from the spatial as a place of action. Would it be possible, nearly two decades on, to have the sort of mass movement that — non-violently but directly — challenged Pauline Hanson and One Nation, as they sought to build a movement in the mid-1990s? Does the fact that events such as Occupy and Slutwalk emerge as spatial events inspired by global online memes make them rule-proving exceptions?

The issue is one that can’t help but feed into the interminable “what is/happened to feminism?” debate. For if anything, of itself, should prompt a collective response from a fragmented post-movement such as feminism, it is surely the challenge to bodily autonomy involved in an attack on safe/legal/affordable abortion. True, in Victoria, the Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights did a call-out for action during the “40 Days” campaign, and has a rally for legal abortion planned for October, and more power to their arm — but to put the issue as bluntly as I can, there seems to be an awful lot of discussion about what feminism is, whether a new movement is required, etc, while a material issue that could form a focus for such goes begging.

Like many people, I’d go toe-to-toe with the clinic-besieging vigilantes in a heartbeat. Their bullying turns my stomach, but any organised response has to be led by women and women’s groups. The ad-hoc “Holborn for choice” group told me they did six hours — three two-hour sessions — beyond the “40 Days” counter-campaign (and as it turned out, they weren’t the only group continuing the campaign), and it’s difficult, and not always wise to extend a campaign over long (cf. Save Albert Park). But crisis is opportunity, and no one should let one such as ’40 Days’ pass by again.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey