All over England and Wales, abortion clinics are being targeted by anti-choice, anti-abortion and, ultimately, anti-women protestors. It often goes unreported and the scenes witnessed by clinic staff, pro-choice activists and service users alike are fraught.
In 2018, Ealing council became the first to implement a no-protest 'buffer zone' around the Marie Stopes West London clinic. That buffer zone prevents anti-abortion protestors from coming within 100 metres of the clinic. The move was hailed as a huge and hopeful step forward for the protection of women seeking abortion services against a backdrop of abuse.
Sally O’Brien, operations manager at Marie Stopes West London, describes the extent of the anti-abortion protestors' harassment and intimidation, which she witnessed daily at the clinic before the buffer zone was introduced.
I've had salt thrown at me as I walked to the clinic. I've seen women blocked at the gate and I've been called a murderer more times than I can remember.
Sally O'Brien, Marie Stopes
"I’ve had salt thrown at me as I walked to the clinic. I’ve seen women blocked at the gate and I’ve been called a murderer more times than I can remember," she explains. "Just getting into work past the anti-abortion groups stationed outside was like running a gauntlet and I would always breathe a sigh of relief as the door closed behind me."
"But," she adds, "that was just the beginning." Throughout the day, she would see women "arrive in floods of tears after being confronted by groups clutching plastic foetuses and rosary beads. Some were in such a state of distress they were unable to continue with their decision, forcing them to rebook for a later date."
O'Brien says the buffer zone has had a "transformational effect" on service users and staff in Ealing. However, while there are reports of similar scenes at other clinics across the country, in September last year the Home Office decided not to implement buffer zones – also known as exclusion zones – outside other clinics in England and Wales following a public consultation on the issue.
Speaking at the time, then Home Secretary Sajid Javid said it "would not be a proportionate response" because harassment was "not the norm" and that most anti-abortion protests "are more passive in nature".
Today, a coalition of charities and medical bodies which includes Marie Stopes, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, among others, has written a letter to the new Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to express their concerns about the decision made while Javid was in office last year.
They are urging Patel to reconsider her predecessor's decision not to introduce buffer zones because they feel that the issue was not properly looked at or considered by officials.
They have decided to take this action because Freedom of Information requests (FOIs), submitted by the Back Off campaign for buffer zones, revealed that one civil servant was recorded as stating in conversation that "there is need to be seen to do something but don’t want to actually do something" during the consultation process. Abortion provider Marie Stopes says this suggests that the outcome of the consultation was "a foregone conclusion" which "underplayed and misrepresented" the experiences of clinic staff and women, despite the submission of a database containing testimony from 1,300 individuals who had experienced harassment outside an abortion clinic.
The same FOIs revealed that another civil servant compared the targeting of women outside abortion clinics to other protest issues such as fracking. They were recorded as saying: "What makes this protest issue different from others? (e.g. Badgers, Fracking)."
When the Home Office announced its decision last year, it released a statement saying "that as only 36 out of 363 licensed premises for abortion care were targeted in 2017, national buffer zones would not be a 'proportionate response'."
However, Sally O’Brien of Marie Stopes says: "We knew at the time that this number misrepresented the many thousands of women being harassed every year. The five worst affected Marie Stopes UK centres cared for over 20,000 women in 2018 alone, all of whom were at risk of experiencing harassment and intimidation before their appointments."
"What we didn’t know," she adds, "until a Freedom of Information Request was submitted to the Home Office earlier this year, was that all the evidence provided by myself and my colleagues with experience of anti-abortion harassment had been written out of the evidence pack that was given to the Home Secretary."
As a result, the coalition is arguing that women’s experiences were not taken seriously and expresses concern that the experiences of staff and healthcare workers were barely mentioned in the final report. It is now calling on the Home Office to review the evidence which was provided and look again at the possibility of introducing national buffer zones so that women will no longer face anti-abortion protestors at the clinic gate.
A Home Office spokesperson told Refinery29:
"This is a sensitive and complex issue, which is why we conducted an in-depth review of protests outside abortion clinics.
"The right to protest is a vital part of a democratic society, but it is completely unacceptable that anyone should feel harassed or intimidated.
"We expect the police to take a firm stance against protesters who significantly disrupt the lives of others and use the full force of the law. There are already powers in place for police to restrict harmful protest activity."