The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) abortion clinic in Bournemouth is discreet. Set back on a quiet, leafy residential street sandwiched between a busy main road and a primary school, it’s flanked by two up, two down houses. Unless you had a reason to visit you wouldn’t necessarily know it was here.
But as I approach something immediately seems off. There are three women huddled together under a footbridge, sheltering from the rain and staring at the clinic’s front door. On a dull, grey October day, their presence is eerie. As I near them, I realise that they are each holding rosaries and praying, the beads moving steadily through their fingers.
One of them is heavily pregnant. Occasionally they break to hand out leaflets and small silver medals bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe – also known as the Virgin of Guadalupe, this is a Catholic symbol associated with the Virgin Mary and symbolising justice – to passersby.
These women are anti-abortion protestors. BPAS says this clinic is currently their hardest hit by such harassment.
The protestors say that they are praying for unborn babies, here to give women seeking terminations "information". But the leaflets they give out contain misinformation and graphic images of foetuses.
These are the sort of scenes you expect to see in the United States, where the strength of the anti-abortion lobby is well documented. Not in Bournemouth.
These are the sort of scenes you expect to see in the United States, where the strength of the anti-abortion lobby is well documented. Perhaps, closer to home, you might know that such protests happen in Ireland or Northern Ireland. But Bournemouth? Manchester? Bristol?
But this clinic is just one of many where staff and service users are currently under siege.
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.
BPAS has received reports from women and clinic staff of protests taking place at 13 locations across the country. They told Refinery29 that at this clinic in particular, they have heard nearly 500 accounts. They say that protestors have been worsening since around 2015 and that they have identified "at least seven different active groups" in Bournemouth.
In 2018, Ealing council became the first in the UK 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.
However, despite evidence confirming the scale of this issue nationwide, 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 the harassment was "not the norm" and that most anti-abortion protests "are more passive in nature".
And so, to get inside this BPAS clinic in Bournemouth, you must pass praying protestors, face being handed a leaflet full of misinformation and, if you come at just the wrong time, deal with one particularly notorious woman who paces up and down outside, accosting anyone she suspects might be about to terminate a pregnancy.
On my way inside, I pass a bright yellow box which is clearly labelled "Unwanted Leaflets".
"It’s a bit tongue in cheek," the receptionist tells me as I sign in. "We have to be careful to make everyone sign in, we’ve had instances of the protestors trying to get inside – posing as friends and family of clients."
This is a busy clinic. They run three surgical abortion clinics a week and can have up to 20 people on that list at any given time. Alongside that, they run a consultation clinic for people who are coming in for appointments prior to treatment, to talk about their options and decide whether an abortion is right for them. They see 50 to 60 of these people each week. And then there are around another 25 people who come in for medical abortions.
In total, that means close to 100 women and pregnant people are coming in and out of this clinic every week. And come rain or shine, they will encounter anti-abortion protestors.
Caroline Brooke, the service coordinator and Amanda Ewells, the treatment manager at this clinic tell me that the hostile environment created by the anti-abortion protestors is causing both staff and service users great upset.
"It’s 40 Days For Life right now," says Amanda. "It’s a coordinated and targeted campaign and it’s very invasive to be honest. We have also had monks who wear blue robes. One of them filmed a member of staff while following her to her car, he absolutely petrified her."
40 Days For Life is affiliated with a US-based anti-abortion movement and currently sees protestors gathering every day outside clinics during concentrated periods twice a year.
As the days draw in on themselves, the mornings and evenings getting darker, Amanda and Caroline are growing more concerned for the safety of their clients and staff. Both women are exactly the right combination of compassionate, calm and professional. They put you immediately at ease and their energy emanates throughout the clinic. As they speak about the protestors, though, I can sense their frustration.
As the days draw in on themselves, the mornings and evenings getting darker, Amanda and Caroline are growing more concerned for the safety of their clients and staff.
"We’ve had instances of protestors putting their arms around clients," Amanda says. "This year we’ve also had quite a few of them coming onto the property and trying to get inside, they also go up to clients’ cars and lean in through the window."
"It’s hugely distressing," Caroline says. "It’s hard for escorts, too – the family and friends who come along for support – they feel that they have to be more protective and all of it just adds to the pressure and distress on the person having a termination. We recently had an escort kick over the protestors' poster boards and we have had women come through the door in floods of tears."
"It’s all very menacing," Caroline chips in, sitting straight up in her chair.
One in three women will have had an abortion by the age of 45. The reasons why are complex and deeply personal. Amanda and Caroline agree that the presence of anti-abortion protestors is adding shame and stigma to a medical procedure which, besides being completely legal, is a fact of life.
Amanda notes that this clinic looks after a lot of women who are having terminations due to foetal abnormalities, which can be particularly difficult for all involved.
"Many of these women have to travel huge distances to get to us," she laments, "it is the biggest, most stressful day of their lives. Often they’ve discovered that there are issues late in their pregnancy and made a heartbreaking decision. And then they are confronted with protestors."
Many of these women have to travel huge distances to get to us. It is the biggest, most stressful day of their lives. And then they are confronted with protestors.
Caroline Brooke, Service Coordinator
How did these two feel when they heard the news that the government was refusing to step in and implement buffer zones around clinics nationwide after Ealing council’s decision?
"Well," Caroline says, dismayed, "it was just a massive disappointment. We’re seeing women every day and having to deal with the distress that the protestors cause."
Part of the reason why the situation here has become so serious, Amanda adds, is the location of the clinic.
"We have such a nice location," she explains. "We’re at the end of a cul-de-sac. It’s nice and quiet. It’s discreet, which should mean that clients can have confidentiality but, in practice, it’s now working against us because the protestors can actually block our entrances and clients have to walk past them to come in and out."
Caroline looks glum. "When you go to a hospital for treatment, nobody knows what you're going there for, it is confidential," she adds. "Outside this clinic, the confidentiality of people walking in is immediately broken because of the protestors accosting them."
The home secretary may have deemed anti-abortion protestors "passive" but the testament of Caroline and Amanda suggests that they are anything but. They place a pile of the leaflets that have been handed out to women and pregnant people on their way into the clinic on the table.
"They’re a play on the truth really," says Amanda. "Some of the things written inside them would be enough to turn you and get you to walk out the door again."
Misinformation is a weapon that the anti-abortion lobby uses effectively. These leaflets may be crafted in clip art pinky pastels but do not be fooled, they are propaganda put together to peddle dogma.
On the back page, there are links to websites offering "counselling". I look them up; they are all anti-abortion sites.
When you go to hospital for treatment, nobody knows what you're going there for, it is confidential. Outside this clinic, the confidentiality of people walking in is immediately broken because of the protestors.
CAROLINE BROOKE, SERVICE COORDINATOR
As we wrap our chat, Caroline and Amanda lead me out of the building through a brimming waiting room. It is full of women, all of whom are being cared for by devoted staff who buzz around them effortlessly.
As we get to reception they stop. "She’s here!" Caroline says.
An elderly woman in a turquoise cagoule is methodically pacing up and down outside the clinic.
I walk outside. Briefly, I think she mistakes me for a client of the clinic and walks towards me.
The woman, who refused to be named, agreed to talk to me. She told me she is 73 years old and has been driving half an hour "once or twice a week" for "decades" to make her point outside this particular clinic.
I want to know why someone would do this. Today it’s cold, the rain hasn’t stopped. What motivates her? She gives me an emotional and convincing spiel about a friend who had an abortion, regretted it and was never able to get pregnant again.
Once again, there it is: emotionally manipulative cod science. The risk that having an abortion will affect your fertility is low.
"She suffered from depression all her life after that," the older woman says, fiddling with her rosary. "And," she stares right at me, wide-eyed, "eventually, she committed suicide."
Does she not realise, I ask, that her presence, patrolling the threshold of a busy abortion clinic, is upsetting people who are already potentially facing a difficult but necessary decision?
"The problem is most women don't have a free choice," she says. I ask if she means that she thinks women are being coerced into getting abortions. She nods.
"There aren’t enough babies to adopt today," she says, looking at me earnestly. "So many babies – millions – have been killed since the Abortion Act in 1967. Now there is actually a shortage."
I ask whether this is the sort of thing she says to women and pregnant people entering the clinic. She says yes, and seems to see nothing wrong with that whatsoever.
I suggest that what she is telling me belongs firmly in the realm of opinion and not fact. She remains incredibly calm and says:
"Most of the women I see here were upset before they set eyes on us – on me."
Protestors leave baby socks in the hedge outside, tell women that lorries on the street are 'there to take their dead babies away'. This is simply unacceptable for any clinic providing legal and essential medical care.
Rachael Clarke, Public Affairs and Advocacy Manager at BPAS
A chill runs through me. Calm, reasonable and seemingly grateful for me taking the time to hear her out, this woman is compelling. She is old, somewhat frail and, I imagine, if the police were called right now she would hardly seem to be a threat. Indeed, because she keeps to public pathways there’s very little they could do anyway.
But her words, her (quite likely fabricated) anti-abortion stories and her emotional manipulation are at once compelling and troubling. Dogma is dogma, no matter how you dress it up. And nobody, particularly not someone who has just been to terminate a pregnancy, should be subjected to it.
Later, I email Rachael Clarke, the public affairs and advocacy manager for BPAS. She says this issue isn’t being covered enough in the press.
"Clinics like BPAS Bournemouth are a sad example of how concerted anti-abortion clinic protests aren’t limited to London. Our staff have to deal with several days of protests almost every week – with clients coming in angry, upset, and unable to understand why we aren’t able to move the protestors on," she explains.
"We have had clients cancel and rebook their appointments, clients who felt unable to get out of the car because of the protest presence, protestors who have come onto clinic property to speak to women while they are in their cars, clients who have asked to be escorted by staff as they cover their faces for fear of being recognised. At the same time, protestors leave baby socks in the hedge outside, tell women that lorries on the street are 'there to take their dead babies away' and that by having an abortion they are 'putting their baby in a meat grinder'. This is simply unacceptable for any clinic providing legal and essential medical care."
BPAS is working with the local council to try and put a stop to the harassment occurring outside the clinic. They don’t just want a buffer zone here, they need one if they are going to continue to function.
The Home Office has decided not to act and so, today, in 2019, running an emotional gauntlet of anti-abortion protestors outside our clinics is the new normal.