Clinic Protestors: Back Off!

Within the last decade, the UK has seen aggressive anti-abortion clinic protests become commonplace. It’s time for the government to take action against intimidating demonstrators by implementing protection zones.


Volunteers from the Christian group 40 Days for Life outside a Marie Stopes clinic in London. (Photo: The Guardian.)

Volunteers from the Christian group 40 Days for Life outside a Marie Stopes clinic in London. (Photo: The Guardian.)

In January, Buzzfeed reported on Catholic anti-abortion protestors outside a British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) clinic in Richmond. Alan White spoke to both protestors and those trying to access the clinic, and wrote that it looks as if anti-abortion campaigners are adopting “more confrontational, street-level tactics from their American counterparts.”

It isn’t just London experiencing this trend. In 2012, the Wistons Clinic in Brighton spoke out against the increasingly aggressive nature of volunteers from the group Abort 67, outside their clinic. Despite anti-abortion protestors being present outside the clinic for a number of years, staff told local press that they had seen tactics of the group become more intimidating over recent years. London and Sussex seem to be at the heart of the UK’s active anti-abortion movement, which has recently garnered calls by media and political figures to be subjected to some legal restriction.

In 2014, Yvette Cooper spoke out for the implementation of ‘buffer zones’ outside abortion and pregnancy advice clinics. Cooper said, “We don’t want the kind of harassment and abuse that we’ve seen in the US imported into Britain.”

UK groups aren’t just mimicking American groups, they’re receiving lessons from them too. Clare McCullough, leader of the UK’s Good Counsel Network told The Independent, that the in-house training of their volunteers “is based on the training from the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, a group in New York.” The Brooklyn branch of the group that McCullough references encourages supporters to attend regular vigils outside “the killing center in your area.”

And yet two years since Cooper’s appeal, the situation does not seem to have improved and campaigners are still calling for the implementation of ‘buffer zones’ to distance protestors from women trying to access abortions.

An example of protestors standing outside abortion clinics with graphic posters. (Photo: Hearts Magazine)

An example of protestors standing outside abortion clinics with graphic posters. (Photo: Hearts Magazine)

The Back Off campaign, run by BPAS, states on its website that anti-abortion campaigners’ “right to protest needs to be balanced with the right of pregnant women to obtain advice and treatment in confidence and free from intimidation.” Anti-abortion protestors have responded in the past to criticism by arguing that their presence outside clinics is polite and peaceful. However a study published last year from Aston University which looked at 200 comments from users of 11 different clinics over a four year period found that the presence of protestors caused “alarm and distress” to women attempting to use the clinics.

Other nations have legal protection for those trying to access abortions; why should the UK not follow suit? Anti-abortion campaigners, having been unchallenged for so long, are becoming more aggressive in their conduct outside British clinics. Demonstrators are employing tactics that in other countries have warranted restrictive legislation to prevent them, such as approaching staff and patients, and chanting.  In France, anti-abortion protestors are not allowed to film or take photographs near abortion clinics, as well as being banned from approaching staff or patients too closely.  The UK group Abort 67 has been accused of filming women entering clinics, though they have said the body cameras worn by their volunteers are for “personal protection,” instead. Furthermore, in the US, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), outlaws using intimidation or physical force to prevent a person from entering a facility which provides reproductive healthcare, whilst different states also implement a variety of other laws regarding obstructing clinic entrances, making threats towards staff or patients, harassment via telephone, and property damage.

A buffer zone outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in the US (Photo: The Boston Globe)

A buffer zone outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in the US (Photo: The Boston Globe)

The situation here is not improving; the BBC reports that about half of the UK’s abortion providers “now have regular demonstrations outside.” Not only has the frequency of such protests increased, but the belligerent nature of protestors and a fearful sentiment of clinic-users is also on the rise, as shown by Aston University’s research. Anti-abortion campaigners have every right to express their beliefs, of course. The introduction of a buffer zone law, which would limit how close protestors are allowed near a clinic, would retain demonstrator’s right to protest, and also protect those trying to work or use a clinic’s facilities from intimidation. There are two forms of buffer zone laws, a ‘fixed’ category which applies to the static area surrounding a clinic, and then a ‘floating’ category applying to specific people or objects like cars.

Intimidation and harassment should not colour any person’s visit to receive a medical procedure, even when it comes to such a controversial topic as abortion. Campaigners have been calling on the government to implement legislation that restricts and regulates the behaviour of anti-abortion demonstrators outside clinics for long enough. The government should take heed of the experiences of women and clinic staff, and finally introduce protective measures that countries from Australia to the United States have had in place for years.

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