No more intimidation: how we can tackle the rise of anti-abortion protests outside UK clinics

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe
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It’s no secret that the tactics employed by American anti-abortion protesters can be brutal.

With their aim of scaring women out of their right to get an abortion, some protesters even use intimidation as a means to an end and 11 people have been killed in attacks on clinics in the States since 1993. Even where demonstrations don't involve violence, women and staff alike are often victimised via the bullying and obstructive agenda of the anti-abortion lobby. 

Over the past few years, these US-based tactics of confrontation have filtered into the mindset of anti-abortion protesters here in the UK. Despite abortion being legal in England, Scotland and Wales since 1967, there has been a steady rise in the number of protesters petitioning outside health care centres where abortions take place.

Figures from 2015 reveal that half of the abortion clinics in England and Wales now have regular demonstrators outside, with women and men harassing patients with the use of graphic, bloodied banners and tiny, lifelike plastic foetuses. Some women are put off having abortions altogether - regardless of their legal right to choose.

Frighteningly, a recent Dispatches investigation by Channel 4 and Hardcash Productions found that protesters here in Britain are even lying to the women they approach, by claiming claiming there is a link between abortion and the risk of getting breast cancer. 

With women being routinely harassed when they're at their most vulnerable - and protesters covered by their right to "peaceful" demonstration - speaks to Channel 4 News anchor Cathy Newman, who presented the Dispatches program, to find out what was uncovered during filming and what steps need to be taken next.

Why did Channel 4 and Hardcash decide to make this film?

We decided to investigate after seeing a growing anti-abortion movement across the world, particularly in America. We'd seen reports that US groups were setting up over here, using some of the same extreme tactics - protesting outside clinics, in a way women said was harassing and upsetting - so we thought we'd see what was going on. We were pretty shocked by what we found. 

What was the most shocking thing to come out of the program?

One of the protesters who I confronted at the end of the film, Justyna from the Good Counsel Network, was actually paid to stand outside of the clinic and protest. What I found really shocking was that she told at least two women, who had been advised not to continue with their pregnancies for their own, as well as their baby’s health, not to have an abortion. She had advised those women to ignore the medical advice and continue with their pregnancies anyway.

And when I challenged her on that she said, "But don’t you think sometimes doctors can get it wrong?"

This protester was telling vulnerable women going through a very traumatic time in their lives that doctors don’t necessarily know best, and that they should consider carrying on with the pregnancy. That was something that could have potentially put their lives at risk.

You confronted Justyna in the program. What was that like?

I didn’t know what to expect: I'd seen the undercover filming and their tactics, and what surprised me was how it felt like an iron fist in a velvet glove. They don’t scream and shout at women, but instead talk very calmly and very gently, and it’s quite disarming. It lulls you into a false sense of security until you analyse what they’re saying.

Potentially it’s not only harassment that is the problem here - it can also be life threatening. 

I think the fact that they know the law very well is worrying – they know that for the police to move them on, individual women would have to make a complaint of harassment. And while we spoke to a lawyer in the film who said that what they were doing could well constitute harassment and be breaking the law, its very hard to tackle them because it relies on individual women going public and making a complaint. And how many women are going to want to do that at such a vulnerable point in their lives?

When I confronted Justyna, I found it quite hard to get a purchase on her because everything I asked - about why she was advising women to go against doctors advice, and why she was giving out leaflets that had entirely misleading information about a false link between breast cancer and abortion – she always answered very calmly.

Until I started questioning her about her salary and the fact that she is paid to protest: and then she started accusing me of harassing her, which I just thought was the most awful irony. It was pretty rich.

Why have these American tactics come over here to the UK?

The worrying thing is that the mood is changing across the world, with a more extreme approach from the anti-abortion campaigners.

There’s a common expression: "When America catches a cold, the rest of the world sneezes". And America has led the way on this, as in so many other things, so once protesters had a foothold in America it was only a matter of time before they tried the same tactics here. I think that’s why I was really pleased to be involved in the film, to highlight and make people aware of what’s really going on. I think a lot of people were quite shocked by it.

If nothing changes, will we see same level of violence here as in US?

We don’t have this bizarre obsession with guns in the UK and It’s a very different climate and atmosphere. I hope that by drawing attention to this problem and the fact that there’s been such a positive response, from MPs in particular, that it won’t get to that stage in the UK.

We're a very different country, with a very different approach to things, so I hope against hope that that doesn’t happen here.

What actions can be taken?

In terms of parliament, there is something that MPs can do. Labour MP Keir Starmer is leading the way in trying to introducing buffer zones so that protesters would have to stand a certain distance away from the clinics. This means women going in wouldn’t have to run the gauntlet of protesters thrusting models of foetuses in their faces.

He’s trying to build a cross party movement on that and there are some encouraging signs that it might happen. 

What would a buffer zone achieve?

The key thing here is that no one is saying these campaigners don’t have a right to protest. It’s clearly an emotional subject, and people have a right to feel strongly about it. What I think is wrong is if women are harassed by the protesters, and if the protesters are then deterring these women from getting the abortions that they have the right to choose.

If you have a buffer zone, there would be a safe distance around the clinics. There would also be more chance of women being able to regain control over their reproductive system, which is being chiselled away in so many countries across the world.

What’s encouraging is that, around the world, women themselves are fighting back against attempts to clamp down on abortion rights. We saw that in Poland (below) when MPS tried to clamp down on the law on abortion and millions for women clubbed together to stop it happening. I think that’s really encouraging.

I don’t think changing the law is the only answer: we also need to change the debate and make people aware of what their rights are. 

Image: Rex Features/iStock