The government has so far refused to introduce exclusion zones, designed to stop anti-choice protesters picketing clinics, on a national level. But this weekend’s protests show how essential they are.
Imagine that you need an abortion. You set off for your local clinic, knowing that the procedure is likely to be emotionally draining and could potentially be physically painful. When you arrive, you are greeted by a crowd of anti-choice protesters, who thrust graphic and inaccurate images of aborted foetuses into your face, address you as “mum”, and hold signs bearing messages such as “thou shalt not kill”.
These are just some of the tactics used by anti-choice protesters in the UK – and according to a leading abortion care provider, the problem is getting worse. Over the weekend, a demonstration took place outside a British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas) clinic in Finsbury Park, north London. According to Bpas, the protesters were shouting at women that they “love them”, stopping patients as they left the clinic, following women as they tried to walk away and accosting passers-by with small children.
The protesters also allegedly pushed leaflets through car windows, took photographs of local residents who opposed their presence, and started kneeling in prayer in the direction of the clinic. Images of the demonstration swiftly went viral on Twitter.
Rachael Clarke, public affairs and advocacy manager at Bpas, tells Stylist that Saturday’s protests in Finsbury Park had a significant effect on patients, clinic staff and the local community.
“Women and their partners were coming into the clinic very upset,” she says. “Our staff have to calm them down and make sure they’re still in a position to be able to take in information and consent to treatment – despite the incredibly distressing thing that’s happened to them.”
People living in the houses behind the protest had no prior warning it was going to happen, Clarke continues. “We’ve heard from quite a few people saying: ‘I was absolutely horrified to find them outside my house.’” One woman told Bpas staff that the demonstration reduced her to tears. Another resident, who was with her disabled brother and carrying her baby at the time of the protest, said the participants refused to move even after she repeatedly asked them to do so.
“These protests cause disruption for the whole area, not just the women who are attending our clinic,” says Clarke.
As a result of the protest in Finsbury Park, the government is now facing renewed calls to introduce exclusion zones around all abortion clinics in the UK. “There is a clear need for buffer zones around clinics,” said Labour MP Jess Phillips. “Women should not be harassed when undergoing medical procedures and the government must finally act on this.
“If you don’t like abortion, that’s fine, don’t have one, your choice. Leave these women to make their choice.”
“They feel emboldened”
In the past 18 months, 44 clinics across the UK – including NHS hospitals that provide abortion services – have been targeted by anti-choice protesters. Of those, eight had never previously faced demonstrations, suggesting that the problem of anti-abortion activism in the UK is getting worse.
Bpas says this is a direct consequence of the government’s refusal to introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics. In 2018, then-home secretary Sajid Javid rejected the idea of introducing exclusion zones around all abortion care providers in England and Wales, saying that the measure “would not be a proportionate response” to the issue of anti-choice harassment.
Last year, several medical bodies and charities spoke out against the government review into the need for exclusion zones, arguing that the report “underplayed and misrepresented” the experiences of staff and patients at clinics. Clarke, meanwhile, believes that Javid’s decision has led to anti-abortion protesters feeling “emboldened”.
“They feel that the government has told them there’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing,” she says. “It’s incredibly frustrating for us because no matter the number of times this issue gets raised in parliament, [the government] just doesn’t seem to see that this is something they really need to pay attention to.”
Defending his decision not to introduce buffer zones, Javid – now the chancellor – said the majority of protests outside clinics in England and Wales were “passive in nature”, involving “praying, displaying banners and handing out leaflets” rather than physical violence or aggression.
However, he also acknowledged that a minority of demonstrations were actively antagonistic and violent, involving “upsetting examples of harassment” – including protesters “handing out model foetuses, displaying graphic images, following people, blocking their paths and even assaulting them”. Apparently, such behaviour does not trouble the government enough for it to take action against it.
And even “passive” demonstrations can be intensely intimidating and upsetting for women at a time when they may already feel vulnerable. Bpas’s research shows that it doesn’t matter how many people are involved in a demonstration outside an abortion clinic, or what they’re doing. “If they’re standing outside watching women access medical care to which they’re legally entitled, if they’re praying for women, if they are handing out leaflets with false medical claims, the impact of that is hugely distressing,” Clarke says. The protest outside the Finsbury Park clinic is a perfect example.
Such “passive” protests make women feel “uncomfortable, angry and upset,” Clarke continues. “Some of them feel they have to hide their faces; some of them cancel their appointments because they’re unable to walk past people.” Ultimately, of course, that is the protesters’ aim.
Why do clinics need the government to instate buffer zones?
Currently, women are protected from anti-abortion activists at just two clinics in the UK: a Marie Stopes centre in Ealing, west London, and a Bpas clinic in Richmond, southwest London. Both are surrounded by buffer zones introduced by their local councils via Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs), legislation designed to prevent persistent antisocial behaviour.
The government is currently insisting that other clinics facing protests should simply ask their local councils to instate exclusion zones. “The police and local authorities have powers to restrict harmful protests – these powers have been successfully used outside abortion clinics in Ealing and Richmond,” said a Home Office spokesperson.
But the idea that every abortion clinic in the UK can protect its patients by asking local authorities to enforce buffer zones is flawed. PSPOs last for a maximum of three years – at which point, they can only be reintroduced following further consultations. They’re also notoriously difficult to introduce in the first place, since they require evidence that antisocial behaviour has had a persistent, detrimental impact on an area.
One-off protests, or demonstrations that happen sporadically, are unlikely to meet the required threshold. And since anti-abortion groups are likely to challenge any attempt to ban them from outside a clinic, councils are often reluctant to introduce buffer zones unless they have several months of evidence of protests happening on a daily or weekly basis.
The solution, backed by Bpas as well as many pro-choice politicians and other advocacy groups, would be to introduce buffer zones on a national level.
“We know from our clinics that if you stop protesters gathering somewhere, they’ll just go somewhere else,” says Clarke. “The patchwork system we have at the moment – where some clinics are protected and others aren’t – doesn’t solve the problem for women.”
If you witness or experience an anti-abortion protest, you can report details of your experience to Back Off – Bpas’s campaign for legislation to ensure women can access pregnancy advice and abortion centres free from interference.
You can also write to your MP to ask the Home Office to reconsider its stance on introducing buffer zones around abortion clinics here.
Images: Getty Images