At the entrance to The Clarkson Academy was a dark, black and blue poster of a lightbulb. It looked, at first, like a corporate stock photo. Inside a London meeting room, I took a seat among a mostly white audience who cheered on Brexit and laughed about Extinction Rebellion, and listened intently to a former lobbyist share his insight into UK politics.
Looking more closely, the filament in the lightbulb on the poster had been shaped in the outline of a fetus, illuminated in orange. The men and women around me hadn’t assembled to talk about the EU or climate change. And the former lobbyist focused his speech on “blood sacrifices” and abortion and homosexuality as part of a “Satanic revolution”.
Yes, you read that correctly. His exact words were “homosexual agenda is one front of the Satanic revolution. Other fronts include abortion” – as well as supposed pushes to legalise cannibalism and paedophilia. Abortions are “ritual child sacrifices”, he continued, claiming that Satanists conduct ritual abortions in (unnamed) “high profile” facilities in the US, including women who sway while chanting “our bodies, ourselves”.
It was, by far, one of the most bizarre events I’ve attended. But I wasn’t the organisers’ target audience. I’m a journalist who writes about women’s and LGBTIQ rights. I enrolled in this ‘academy’ to get a closer look at the movement behind recent protests targeting a prominent pro-choice MP, Stella Creasy, who has filed a harassment claim with police.
The group behind the event is the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform UK. It recently hit the headlines after posting billboards featuring graphic imagery near Creasy’s constituency office. Its #StopStella campaign has specifically targeted the pregnant MP over her role in liberalising the law in Northern Ireland, where abortion had been banned since 1861.
Also known by its acronym CBR-UK, the group is a branch of a US organisation that is best known for public protests with placards bearing graphic and distressing images, including at universities and outside clinics. During the two-day training in London this month, participants were taught how to justify such tactics, and respond to critics.
We were also encouraged to think ambitiously – and aim to end abortion in the UK (where it's been legal for half a century) within five years.
At the Clarkson Academy, in the heart of London, attendees (including three women from Malta, where abortion is banned in all circumstances) were welcomed by organisers with smiles. Other Christian right and anti-abortion groups set up stalls and gave out materials.
The attendees were mostly white, with some teenagers chatting to pensioners, and some hipster beards and leopard print mingling with the more soberly dressed. Another notable mixture was that of anti-EU heckling, comments mocking climate change activism, and anti-LGBTIQ rhetoric along with these groups’ better-known, anti-abortion activism.
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The founder of CBR-UK, Andy Stephenson, was the first speaker. He kicked off the day by introducing a deeply upsetting video featuring graphic footage – and said that the “real misogyny” is believing that “vulnerable women” should not see such distressing images. It was one of several bogus justifications offered for anti-abortion intimidation tactics.
Despite broad support for abortion across the UK and recent liberalisation of abortion laws in Northern Ireland, Stephenson told the audience that he is “more convinced over the last month that we have an opportunity to see [abortion] end in the next five years”. And then came Wilfred Wong, the former lobbyist whose focus was straight-up Satanism.
While a lobbyist, Wong had an office in the House of Commons for 16 years. He’s currently a director of CBR-UK, and is a former director of another anti-abortion group, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC). What he suggested – that sexual and reproductive rights progress is actually the result of Satanic machinations – was extreme.
But it wasn’t original. This is a well-worn conspiracy theory that claims Satanists, including those in powerful political positions, ritually abuse adults and children to increase the devil’s power and impose an anti-Christian agenda on society. Wong said UK abortion rates are linked to high-profile Satanists who aim to “undermine and transform society”.
He accused former prime minister Edward Heath of being involved in ritual Satanic abuse, and prompted heckling and boos from his apparently pro-Brexit audience after referencing Heath’s role in bringing the UK into the EU in the first place. Jimmy Savile was also a Satanist, he added, but this was covered up by high-profile, Satanist media editors.
Even some churches and the British government have been infiltrated by Satanists, Wong claimed, hence their reluctance to “deal with abortion”. He urged the room to challenge this. One audience member called out “Hallelujah.” At another point, attendees muttered “Amen.”
Wong did not respond to requests for comment, emailed to CBR-UK, for this article and about his claims regarding Satanism specifically.
It was a bizarre, often upsetting and deeply uncomfortable, experience to immerse myself in this scene, even for a short period. Wong’s talk invoked outrageous claims to defend aggressive and intimidating tactics to prevent women accessing legal abortions, including protest ‘prayer vigils’ outside clinics that seek to prevent women from entering them.
He explicitly justified these tactics as strategies to counter Satan’s power, claiming that “when people prayed outside clinics” it can cause abortions to fail, and so it is “not surprising that they are trying to ban prayer vigils outside clinics in the UK” via ‘buffer zones’. These zones are intended to protect women from harassment while seeking legal healthcare.
There was also a session on the #StopStella campaign. The second day of the 2019 academy culminated in a trip to Creasy’s constituency to set up what they called an “educational display”. I had distanced myself from the group by then, and didn’t take part in their demonstration.
But I did follow it remotely, via social media. CBR-UK later tweeted an image of its protesters holding up banners with close-up pictures of Creasy’s face, accusing her of stifling free speech by “trying to ban the public showing of large images of unborn and/or aborted foetuses”.
Creasy was at Parliament at the time, and tweeted: “Am in Westminster trying to tackle Brexit but understand CBR UK [is] back in Walthamstow with their posters of my head.”
The group is currently under police investigation for allegedly harassing the MP. On its website, a CBR-UK statement refutes these allegations and says that Creasy is trying “to divert attention from what she is legislating, is attempting to mischaracterise our volunteers and our work”, and “trying to make us look bad in an effort so she can claim to be a victim”.
The same statement promoted the #StopStella campaign, encouraging supporters to continue to “contact Stella Creasy and ask her to defend the unborn child”, as well as to “pray for her”.
Last week, another article I wrote revealed my identity and presence at the recent training, leading to a flurry of seemingly co-ordinated tweets from Clarkson Academy attendees and supporters asking if I was a “psychopath”, and linking to graphic anti-abortion videos and images.
But inside their training, what was on full display was how this wing of the anti-choice movement feeds off extremist conspiracy theories, and how it virulently opposes LGBTIQ people, as well as reproductive rights, as part of an “agenda” that “helps Satanists to corrupt children”.
Over email after the event, Stephenson told me they don't focus only on Creasy but “are training people up to expose the extreme abortion cover up of other MPs, celebrities and the media”. Though she was the only politician he named, accusing her of hypocrisy for “commending XR antics” while “condemning [CBR UK’s] peaceful lawful educational work”.
“Regarding the end of abortion,” he continued, “we think there is an opportunity for this nation to turn back to a civilised society”. Stephenson said: “We will one day look back and consider those who are currently champions of abortion the same way we do those who discriminated against people based on their ethnicty, sex, religion etc.”
There is significant counter-evidence to their claim to be able to end abortion in this country, however. On 22 October, abortion finally became legal in Northern Ireland, thanks to a law change that was led by Creasy. CBR-UK will continue to put up their posters and intimidate women with distressing imagery. But their cause has just lost a major battle.