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As first UK abortion clinic is forced to close over protestors, one writer shares her experience of enduring abuse on the steps of a clinic

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Sally

It's 17 February 2007 and I am focussing intently on a microscopic thread of blue. It floats languidly, almost leisurely, like plankton under water. It hasn’t quite reached its destination. As I watch the chemistry unfold in surreal slow motion, my thumping chest reminds me of real time.

Thirty seconds later, there are no more tiny threads and I am staring at a thick, blue line. I am 21 years old, pregnant, and debilitated with dread.

This week we heard a UK abortion clinic has closed after protests outside it became ‘unmanageable’. It hasn’t come as a surprise to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service which warned in March that anti-abortion protests are now taking place every day at clinics across the country. This is thought to be the first time a UK abortion clinic has closed as a ‘direct result’ of protesting (BPAS).

It’s unclear who the protestors were (and as yet, which clinic has closed) and it doesn’t matter. Any form of intimidation is an attack, whether it’s posters of bloody foetuses, secret video cameras or – in my case – three men and one woman shaking rosary beads and whispering, 'You don't have to do this' at my terrified 21 year old self. Conspiratorially, as if we’d all be in it together.

I didn't want a baby before I was pregnant, and I really didn't want a baby when I found out I was. It was a mistake. I held the belief – and still do – that I was not just legally but morally entitled to rectify it.

Unfortunately, that didn’t help much with the grief. The waiting period was a tearful purgatory – I was scared, sad and guilty. I felt I was letting someone down.Depriving a person of something. On top of that, I felt shame. I didn’t want to transition from Woman Who Hasn’t Had An Abortion to Woman Who Has Had An Abortion. Aged 30, I now recognise that as a pressure that doesn’t belong with the human right to decide what happens to your body. Alas, abortion was – and still is – shrouded in guilt.

An unnamed pregnant woman made headlines last year when she launched a passionate tirade against anti-abortion protestors outside a London clinic

Over the past few decades we’ve had a steady stream of disturbing imagery and pro-life news from the USA. Crazy, placard-waving religious groups and maniacal, red-faced protesters blocking women from entering private clinics to pay for an abortion. But this is England – we like to think we’re not so extreme. We’re more progressive, we keep our anger passive and private. We have the NHS.

All of which makes the upsurge of anti-abortion activity on home soil – getting so bad a clinic has closed because of it – so disturbing.

In the lead up to my abortion I hadn’t once considered I’d face anything like I’d seen on TV. Thirty minutes before the appointment, I sat in a café around the corner with my boyfriend of a year. We stayed silent, as if to respect the gravity of the situation. I thought about how relieved I would be in two hours. That it was 99% over. I was looking forward to the general weepiness to end and I was already feeling a little bit of that relief. Linking arms, we walked towards the address saved on my phone. As we rounded the corner I felt my boyfriend’s body stiffen.

There were four people standing where we needed to be, holding leaflets and folders. I squinted ahead, it took a moment to register why they were there. One of the men spotted us. Instantly my face told him where I was headed. He didn’t waste any time. ‘You don’t have to do this!’ he projected, taking a step in our direction. He was swinging a string of rosary beads, like incense.

Quickly his accomplices joined in.

‘Save your baby!’ My stomach lurched. I’ve already…I can’t. The solace I’d accessed just minutes before evaporated, purgatory-guilt taking its place. I fixated on breathing as slowly as I could. As we approached, now feet away, a woman tried to hook rosary beads over my shoulder. “Do not get rid of God’s child!’ As I recoiled, my boyfriend turned to make a wall with his back and I used him as a shield – ‘You do not have to kill!’ – to walk over the threshold, into the relative calm of the clinic.

Abortion protest

I may have benefitted from a “buffering zone” that day. In March, 120,000 people signed a petition calling for spaces outside clinics to keep protestors at a certain distance. The zones are supported by MPs such as Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Diane Abbott, but aren’t a legal requirement thus far.

If anything demonstrates the increasing need to protect our clinics from further intimidation, it’s the fact we already have one fewer because of it. Allowing our invaluable, legally enshrined abortion service to be disrupted to the point it can no longer operate is a legal negligence. Failing to protect the people accessing that service is a humanitarian one.

I signed in at the reception desk on autopilot. I was shocked and upset. And a little angry. My boyfriend and I looked at each other. My mind was made up. They’ve missed the point, I thought. I’ve already had the hurt and felt the feelings. By making their opinions known outside the building, they’re harassing women whose emotional journey is already half done - what's the point? Other than to add another layer of trauma to an already painful process, I can't imagine their success rate for 'talking people out of it' is very high.

‘Having an abortion’ doesn’t start when you walk into the clinic. It starts when you hold a future you don't want in the palm of your hands, and ends only when you’ve made peace with what you went through, however long that takes you.

Words: Sally Griffith

Pictures: Authors own and Rex 

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