Recent advancements in abortion rights law certainly seem to suggest so. Triumphs around buffer zone legislation, abortion care in Northern Ireland, and the permanent extension of at-home medical abortion care provision, appear to be the work of a tiny group of trailblazing Parliamentarians and expert lobbyists.
Parliamentary initiatives are one of the most visible, at-the-coalface types of advocacy. But the tough, tactical work of Parliamentary advocacy often builds upon the work of countless activists who have been advocating for the issue in many ways and over many years. Lobbying for the buffer zone legislation – which finally became law in early March 2023, thanks to the relentless work of BPAS, Stella Creasy MP and many others – derived its political impetus and much of its written evidence from activism work led by Sister Supporter, an organization founded by local residents to stop the harassment around the abortion clinics in their community.
These people are grassroots activists. Their work, much of it unpaid and snatched on weekends, late nights and early mornings, holds the potential to transform the way that we address reproductive rights issues in the UK, both legally and socially. And for this to happen, our grassroots community must be engaged, supported and replenished.
When I talk about grassroots activists, I am talking about ‘ordinary’ people, who sit mostly outside political decision-making or influencing structures, taking collective, community-based action to contribute towards change. They convene meetings, in local halls or around kitchen tables; make themselves nuisances to backbench MPs; sew or paint their indignation into art; endlessly explain and persuade, their voices still hoarse from last weekend’s march. Hierarchies in their groups are informal, tactics radical and creative. Relationship-building and the mobilisation of communities are the key to their success and sustainability.
Grassroots activism doesn’t replace political lobbying; it reinforces it. Legislative change is both more achievable and less at risk of reversal when underpinned by widespread (progressive) social norms change and public pressure. My own organisation, Abortion Rights, is a merger of these two complementary approaches to social change. Built on the shoulders of giants, it encompasses the parliamentary and media lobbying of the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) which lobbied for the Abortion Act 1967, and the trade union and grassroots campaigning base of the National Abortion Campaign, which mobilised mass protests during the 1970s in response to the attempted rollbacks to the 1967 Act.
In this way, grassroots activism lays the groundwork for Parliamentary advocacy: by creating community-level pressure on MPs, and by making the cause of reproductive rights hard for them to ignore and harder still to oppose. But grassroots activism also extends beyond Parliamentary impact to social transformation. Conversation by conversation, it challenges pre-set beliefs and transforms stigmatizing narratives. Like the feminist consciousness-raising of the 1970s, it encourages people to engage with reproductive justice issues through the lens of their own lived experiences. By building relationships with groups organised around other social issues, it highlights the intersections between reproductive rights issues and – among other things – violence against women, the climate crisis and racial inequalities.
By promoting constructive dialogue, strategising and information exchange between communities, grassroots activism can radically alter the perception and understanding of reproductive rights, and raise ambitions to more holistic forms of progress than incremental law changes. It can ask: what would it mean to have an approach to reproductive rights in the UK which centred the needs of women and pregnant people, particularly the most marginalised?
In many countries, abortion conditions which are self-evidently restrictive and inhumane provide a clear cause for activists to rally around. In the UK, the situation is more complex. Many people who would describe themselves as pro-choice, or as feminists, believe our right to an abortion is a battle that has already been won. Many do not know that procuring an abortion without a doctor’s permission is still a criminal act, that women have recently been prosecuted in England for having abortions, or that blanket abortion provision is still not a reality in some parts of Northern Ireland. They are unaware of the frequent, albeit unsuccessful, attempts by anti-choice charities and MPs to limit our reproductive freedoms. This leads to reduced grassroots momentum around reproductive rights, especially in England, Scotland and Wales.
Abortion Rights wants to change that. That’s why we launched our Activist Bootcamp, a virtual training programme to create new community activists for the abortion rights movement. Participants, known as Activists, receive training and mentorship to develop key grassroots activism skills and are guided to plan their own activism projects to expand abortion rights support within their communities. We hope this work will contribute to reduced stigma, improved public understanding of abortion law, and increased political momentum for decriminalisation via increased local and community-level activism.
Our first cohort of incredible Activists started in November 2022. After a three-month crash course in activism and reproductive justice approaches, they are currently designing their own grassroots activism projects.
The next generation of grassroots reproductive rights activists is coming to a community near you.
Written by Alice Chilcott is an Executive Committee Member of Abortion Rights and co-founder of the Abortion Rights Activist Bootcamp. She works in the gender equality field and previously coordinated the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health in the UK.
Find out more about the Abortion Rights Activist Bootcamp, including how to apply for the 2023/24 cohort, here.