Dialogical (de)Medicalisation in British Abortion Activism

by Leah Eades

At March for Life, Britain’s largest anti-abortion demonstration, I found myself face-to-face with a sign exhorting me to “love them both”. The both referred to the smiling mother and baby also pictured. Underneath, a subtitle read: “Abortion: kills one, hurts another”.


The notion that abortions hurts the women who have them was something that I encountered again and again during my fieldwork with anti-abortion activists. Of course, sometimes they meant hurt in a general, or even a spiritual, sense – referring, for example, to feelings of “regret” or “pain”. But, as I wandered along the rows of stalls at March for Life, I couldn’t help but notice the extent to which the risks associated with abortion were delineated in clinical terms. I spoke with post-abortion counsellors at four different stalls, and picked up reams of leaflets listing the potential physical and psychological side effects of abortions. Undeniably, abortion was being represented as a risky medical process.

With an estimated 1,400 visitors crowded into a fenced-off area in Birmingham’s central Victoria Square, this was Britain’s largest March for Life to date. But the event had also attracted a sizeable opposition, with approximately 250 pro-choice activists turning up to counter-demonstrate. As I perused the March for Life merchandise stand, leaflets in hand, I noticed a disturbance behind me. I turned, to see billows of red smoke rising into the stormy sky above.

A few hundred feet away, a group of pro-choice demonstrators were staging a die-in. As I watched, the bodies of a half-dozen or so women began to become visible through the red mist. Each woman lay sprawled on the ground, as if dead. Each wore a blood-red cloak. And above her head, straight up in the air, each held aloft a coat hanger – the symbol of the dangerous backstreet abortions of the past. As I moved closer, I could just make out the chant emanating from the counter-protestors: “Pro-life? That’s a lie. You don’t care if women die.”

Throughout the day, although choice rhetoric dominated the counter-demonstration, the spectre of illegal abortion and its dangers was continually evoked with coat hangers, slogans, and speeches. In contrast, legal abortion was repeatedly constructed as safe.

Clearly, the anti-abortion and pro-choice activists were utilising notions of abortion-related risk in very different, often contrasting ways – and it was their dialogical relationship that intrigued me.

Initially, I had only planned to look at the medicalised strategies and rhetorics employed by the anti-abortion side, my interest piqued by accusations of medical misinformation and their growing clinical presence. However, it soon became apparent to me that only looking at medicalisation, and only looking at anti-abortion activists, would only tell a partial story. And so – inspired by Faye D. Ginsburg’s dialogical ethnographic approach (1998) and Drew Halfmann’s conceptualisation of medicalisation as a shifting value that occurs across multiple dimensions and scales (2012) – I decided to expand my research remit, and instead explore the dynamics of medicalisation and de-medicalisation among pro- and anti-abortion rights activists.

Many consider abortion rights in the UK to be relatively secure (if we conveniently forget about Northern Ireland, anyway). However, British abortion law and provision remains a contested area. And in Britain, as in many other parts of the world, these battles are increasingly being fought, not in the language of religion or morals, but in terms of patients’ rights and healthcare. These medicalised discourses – despite their scientific veneer of objectivity – can be misleading. At worst, we’re talking junk science and scare tactics. But, even more insidious, is the way in which these discourses are gradually eclipsing the larger social and political issues at stake. Which is perhaps why the news that scientists are one step close to developing artificial wombs led many to speculate that this techno-fix might mean the end of abortion – but far less discussion about the wishes of the pregnant woman, the burden of surgery, or what would happen to the foetus afterwards.   

I’m not saying we shouldn’t evaluate all the scientific evidence available to us, or ever employ medicalised strategies in campaigns (after all, they’re often highly effective). But what I am saying is that it’s important to recognise that science doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but is produced and interpreted in context. It’s a cultural product with social functions. And it certainly can’t encompass every point that’s important in a topic like abortion. These are insights worth remembering as the British decriminalisation campaign gains momentum, there are renewed calls for buffer zones, and Northern Ireland and the Republic face growing pressure to update their abortion laws.

Leah Eades graduated from UCL’s MSc Medical Anthropology programme in 2017. The above post contains adapted extracts from her dissertation. You can read the complete dissertation here and follow Leah on Twitter here. All photographs taken by author.


Ginsburg, F. D. (1998). Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community. 2nd edn. London: University of California Press.

Halfmann, D. (2012). Recognizing medicalization and demedicalization: discourses, practices, and identities. Health, 16(2): 186-207.

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