When one London council decided to introduce a "buffer zone" outside an abortion clinic in April, it was hailed a success for women's right to exert control over their own bodies. The area, Ealing council said, would protect women entering the Marie Stopes clinic, following reports that many had been harassed by anti-abortion groups holding daily vigils outside.
Pro-choice campaigners hoped Ealing's move would encourage other councils to adopt the progressive policy, and that it would eventually be rolled out nationwide. But the government today rejected the idea – despite the harassment and damaging behaviour that occurs outside many clinics – appearing to side with anti-abortion groups.
Demands for buffer zones, also known as "exclusion zones", to be introduced in England and Wales came from women's groups and politicians across the political spectrum. But following a Home Office review, Home Secretary Sajid Javid said implementing them outside all clinics "would not be a proportionate response" because harassment was "not the norm'' and that most anti-abortion protests "are more passive in nature".
Pro-choice groups and politicians who backed the policy voiced their outrage on Thursday morning, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn describing it as a "shocking failure to protect women", Labour MP Stella Creasy saying Javid had "let down women in this country", and Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas reiterating that "no-one has a right to harass, intimidate and obstruct women trying to access healthcare".
Many pro-choice supporters also pointed out that the effects of non-violent protest on someone's wellbeing can be equally – if not more – damaging than any potential physical impact. Beth Redmond, 25, came face to face with protestors outside a clinic when she had a medical abortion (the abortion pill) in Essex in 2012 when she was 19, and told Refinery29 the experience had a lasting impact. The group held graphic images and leaflets of foetuses and babies, one of which showed "a happy six-month-old baby with a new mum" and "a bloody foetus" next to it.
Protestors make the experience a lot more stressful than it needs to be.
"It made me doubt myself. Nothing would have stopped me going into the clinic at that stage – I'd thought about it for a couple of weeks at least. But it definitely makes you think, 'Hold on, if these people are saying this about me, calling me a murderer, then maybe I am'," she said. "There's already stigma associated with the procedure, and these people reinforcing that stigma makes you feel like a worse person than you are.
"Protestors make the experience a lot more stressful than it needs to be, and I can imagine a lot of women doubting themselves. I guess that's how they want you to feel. For a few years afterwards I just didn't talk about it, I didn't tell anyone it happened and that was definitely not good for my mental health."
Redmond wasn't politically active then and didn't identify as pro- or anti-choice until she got pregnant, but being confronted with protestors helped to solidify her beliefs. "For someone to make you doubt what you want to do with your own body, what you want to do with your life going forward, is unnerving."
They hit one of us with their car and threw holy water over the steps of the clinic.
The incident inspired Redmond to join the National Abortion Rights Campaign and found a Sister Supporter group in Manchester, where she now lives, to counter-protest the harassers outside clinics. Her group demonstrates every Saturday, some weekdays and twice a year during the religious anti-abortion 40 Days For Life protests.
Redmond shared examples of the behaviour she has seen from various people while demonstrating in Manchester. "Some of the stuff we've seen there is ten times more horrific than what I saw when I was going to [my appointment]. They hit one of us with their car, threw holy water over the steps of the clinic; they wouldn't let one woman walk past them into the clinic and shoved leaflets into people's hands that said 'ask to see the scan'," she recalled. "They have misleading dolls of fully grown foetuses which are obviously not [the same size as] what the majority of people are aborting when they go into the clinic."
Many of the women Redmond has met through her work with Sister Supporter have had counselling or therapy partly as a result of their encounters with anti-abortion groups, she said. "It contributes to people feeling like they can't talk about it because they're worried that people will react in the same way as the protesters did outside the clinic. It definitely impacts women in the long run."
But the effects of these protests aren't just scarring for women who actively elect to have abortions. There's also the potentially destructive impact on women who have been forced to have the procedure for medical reasons. "For them to be going in and be called a murderer on their way in is really upsetting," Redmond added. "If what you expected to be your child is dying and you get called a murderer, then it will stay with you for a very long time. We've definitely seen abuse on a large scale."
She described the government's decision today as "a slap in the face" to not just women in England and Wales, but also for the women of Northern Ireland who still can't access abortions locally and who have to travel to England and then experience abuse on the way into the clinic.
This article was amended on 17th September to clarify a quote.