Should more be done to protect women from protesters outside abortion clinics?

  • By ITV News Multimedia Producer Amani Hughes

“It’s a really hard decision to have to make, you’re feeling really vulnerable, you’re not feeling great about having to make that decision to go to a clinic and when you arrive, they are all standing outside."

Gemma (not her real name) was approached by anti-abortion protesters as she made her way to the Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing at the end of 2017.

“They were giving out rosary beads, pink and blue ones, and to me, they’ve gendered your unborn child,” she told ITV News.

“At that point, most people are going in and they're only a couple of months pregnant, and they are already giving it a personality, it’s really off-putting."

Gemma said the pro-life campaigners try to “tug at your heartstrings” at a time of immense trauma and physical and emotional pain.

Marie Stopes in Ealing was the first clinic in the UK to introduce a buffer zone. Credit: PA

Similar scenes are echoed by staff who work at abortion clinics.

Shanaaz Mohammed, clinical team leader at the Marie Stopes Central London clinic, told ITV News women who come through the door are emotionally shaken and visibly traumatised by the protesters they have to get past.

“The numbers they come out in is daunting and intimidating, they use inappropriate posters, plastic props, graphic imagery," Shanaaz told ITV News.

"There are plaques of ‘love them both’ meaning mum and baby, hand-held foetuses, and they give out misleading leaflets, with misleading claims.

“It’s all sort of tactics they use to destabilise women into stopping them using the services.”

For staff, dealing with the protesters has become a way of life. One wrote she had become “immune” to them.

While campaign groups have shared footage online of protesters gathering outside the Marie Stopes Central London clinic.

But at two abortion clinics in the UK, including the one visited by Gemma in 2017, women are now protected from anti-abortion activists.

Last year, Ealing Council made history when they introduced the UK’s first exclusion zone, preventing protests within 100 metres of the Marie Stopes clinic.

The anti-abortion activists have no choice but to position themselves down the road; their chance of reaching the women entering the clinic dramatically reduced.

Richmond in southwest London followed suit in March this year, banning protesters from gathering outside the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) clinic.

But the way buffer zones were achieved - through a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) - is a temporary solution, not a permanent one.

And for the vast majority of abortion clinics across the UK, exclusion zones do not exist, despite terminations now being legal in all parts of the country.

Northern Ireland fell in line with the rest of the UK at midnight on Monday, when abortion was decriminalised, despite last-minute attempts to thwart the move.

The 19th-century laws that criminalised abortion in Northern Ireland fell away. Credit: PA

However the repeated efforts of those opposed to abortion across the UK have led to more calls for women entering clinics to be protected.

“What we have now is a postcode lottery," Rachael Clarke, Public Affairs and Advocacy Manager at BPAS explained.

"If the contract your local area has, lets you go to Marie Stopes in Ealing or to BPAS in Richmond, which both have buffer zones, in place, you won’t have protesters.

“But if you have to go to BPAS in Streatham, or if you have to go to Marie Stopes in central London or if you have go to Birmingham or Manchester, or Buckhurst Hill in Essex, you will get those protesters and that’s completely unjustifiable, that women have to put up with that.”

The protests intensified from the end of September, when the Texas-based anti-abortion group ‘40 Days for Life’ began their all-day vigils across the world, including at 10 locations in the UK.

Their stated aim is "helping Christians end the injustice of abortion".

But Robert Colquhoun, Director of International Campaigns, denies any of the activists intimidate or harass women and peacefully demonstrate outside clinics.

“Our presence is entirely benevolent, peaceful, prayerful and legal and in fact we have seen hundreds of people, because of our presence, change their minds and choose life,” he told ITV News.

“I have been doing this job for 10 years, I haven’t seen a single substantiated case of harassment and intimidation at our vigils during that time.”

But Shanaaz said the protests are enough to stop some women from entering the legal clinics, hoping the next time they visit, protesters won’t be there to interrupt them.

“It makes them feel quite guilty, they feel ashamed and emotionally manipulated," Shanaaz told ITV News.

“Some women come back for more counselling, anything that will help them get back into a stronger frame of mind, so they can go on with their lives, free of the guilt, they have had to go through.”

Buffer zones outside abortion clinics have been introduced thanks to a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO). Credit: PA

Even though Ealing started the trend of protection orders - originally introduced to tackle anti-social behaviour - it’s unlikely they will be implemented everywhere.

For cash-strapped councils, the time and money needed to gather evidence to introduce PSPOs is huge, Rachael of BPAS explains.

“We don’t need people in the council to sit in a building and tell us women are feeling distressed, because we know harm is happening, it’s been accounted for across the country,” she added.

But, more pertinently, there is a clock ticking attached to PSPOs.

They last for up to three years and, when they expire, a further consultation and decision will be needed to roll them out once again. That means more evidence of harassment.

So for the Ealing clinic, now the campaigners are 100 metres down the road, will the proof required to re-establish a protection order be as compelling?

Ealing's buffer zone will expire in 2021 and a further decision will be needed to extend it. Credit: PA

This is why pro-choice campaigners are pushing for abortion clinic safe zones to be introduced as law by the government.

Their campaign was buoyed when then Home Secretary Amber Rudd launched a review of protests outside abortion clinics in 2017.

But it fell on Ms Rudd's successor Sajid Javid to make the call.

In September last year, he said introducing national buffer zones "would not be a proportionate response", as anti-abortion protests were a minority.

"We were very disappointed, it misunderstood what women experienced and the concerning nature of the protests," Rachael of BPAS said.

Pro-life protesters have been said to use inappropriate posters, plastic props and graphic imagery. Credit: PA

But the setback has not stopped pro-choice campaigners from pushing vigorously for the government to act.

"Abortion is a contentious issue, but abortion is healthcare, it's legal healthcare," Eve Veglio-White, co-founder of Sister Supporter said.

The campaign group was instrumental in pushing for the landmark breakthrough in Ealing and has since driven efforts to help roll out PSPOs at abortion clinics elsewhere in the UK.

“There is no other healthcare, that has this activity attached to it ... there’s no other procedure where you would have to be faced with other people's opinions, which is most often rooted in their own religious ideology," Eve said.

Rachael said it shouldn't be left to people on the ground to fight this battle.

“This isn’t the job of your local common denominator because they think it's only a problem in one place because it’s not, it's a problem around the country," she said.

“It’s a national problem and it needs a national solution.”