Tears & Trauma: Even Lockdown Didn’t Stop Anti-Abortion Protesters

It’s 8.30am and it’s already warm and muggy. 25 degrees worth of warm and muggy to be precise. A man is shouting, his words fill the sticky air. He repeats "Every child deserves a birthday" over and over again. 
He is holding a large homemade sign. It reads ‘Abortion Murders Babies’ in large black and red lettering. He’s joined by two more men, they also have signs. One says ‘THOU SHALL NOT MURDER’, the other declares ‘Babies are MURDERED here’ above a pixelated image of body parts. Hours pass, they stand together. The shouting continues. Women rush past, accompanied by friends and family, trying to avoid them. 
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A scene from America’s bible belt? No. A description of a sequence in a dystopian horror film? No. This was last week outside a busy Marie Stopes abortion clinic in Bristol in the southwest of England, which cares for anywhere between 12 and 20 women and people with wombs every day. For the last year, the clinic has been besieged by these anti-abortion protesters
"We have a huge problem with anti-abortion protesters harassing clinic staff and users here," Emma Jones, the 39-year-old operations manager for the clinic, tells Refinery29. She’s been managing this clinic for a year and says the problem has been worsening over time. 
At the start of lockdown in March, Emma says that the protesters disappeared briefly, which provided staff and service users with a much-needed reprieve from harassment and abuse. In May, however, as restrictions loosened ever so slightly, they returned with a vengeance. A global pandemic, it transpires, is not enough to stop them for long.
"It’s had a huge impact on staff and the people who come here for terminations," Emma explains wearily over the phone. "The protesters arrive in the morning and they usually stay for three or four hours. Their signs have graphic images of uteruses, foetuses and blood emblazoned on them. They tell us that we’re murderers, they tell the people coming here for terminations that they’re murderers." 
In the last few weeks, the protesters – who think that abortion is a sin – have upped the ante. "They’ve got what I can only describe as an extending pole," Emma says, "so they can stack the signs high up on top of one another, making them taller, more imposing and more visible."
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More than this, they’ve recently started bringing an amp with a microphone so that they can make themselves even louder. "They shout at people in the car park. They say, ‘You’re murdering your child’. If men are accompanying women into the clinic they say ‘Be a man’ to them, which is really harmful. They just shout abuse nonstop when they’re here," she adds, sounding exasperated. 
Recent testimonies from service users and their companions at the Bristol centre in recent weeks speak volumes about the impact of this activity:

[They were] shouting and had large posters and calling me a murderer. [I felt] upset and embarrassed.

Service user, 4TH JUNE

[I felt] sad and upset. People do not take these decisions lightly. [It was a] violation of privacy.

service user, 4th JUNE

[They were] filming us as we walked in and shouted abuse. [I felt] intimidated, worried about what they might do with the footage they filmed.

SERVICE USER'S COMPANION, 9th JUNE

[They were] shouting, holding signs and filming each car / person coming in and out. [I felt] uncomfortable and unsafe, [it] upset the person I was with.

service user's companion, 4th june
Sadly the fraught story of this particular clinic is not unique. All over England and Wales, abortion clinics are being targeted by anti-choice, anti-abortion and, ultimately, anti-women protesters
Marie Stopes clinics are not the only ones affected. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has been experiencing similar issues at their facilities. BPAS has received reports from women and clinic staff of protests taking place at 13 locations across the country. 
Last year they told Refinery29 that their Bournemouth clinic is particularly badly affected, with nearly 500 accounts of harassment reported by service users. They say that they’ve seen protests worsening consistently since 2015. 
Maddeningly, this could all be stopped. 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 protesters 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. 
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However, despite evidence confirming the scale of this issue nationwide, in September 2018 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".
Years later, it’s becoming increasingly clear that these protests are the norm and that far from being passive, the protesters are wreaking havoc and deliberately causing serious emotional trauma outside clinics all over the country. The impact of their presence cannot be underestimated. 
And so, the fight for the fragile space around abortion clinics in England and Wales continues. 
"We have to take the protesters into consideration with everything we do," Emma explains. "We have to make sure we’re all communicating with each other so that we can protect and support service users. We have to call the people coming in that day and let them know – sometimes it makes people not want to come. We do have some rescheduling their appointments because they’re fearful of the harassment which – obviously – can be difficult because abortion is a time-sensitive procedure." 
"The emotional impact is just huge," she adds. "The decision to have an abortion is only ever the choice of the person having it. Nobody knows what they’re going through and they shouldn’t judge them. There can already be heightened emotions around it and these protesters just make everything harder. We’ve had people in tears because of it, because what they say is so horrible." 
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All is not lost, though. Last week the Labour MP Rupa Huq put a new bill forward in parliament in an attempt to introduce a law to bring in automatic buffer zones around all abortion clinics in England and Wales once and for all, as well as giving the police powers to disperse demonstrators. Promisingly, Huq’s proposal has cross-party support from MPs of all political persuasions across Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and the Conservatives, with big name Tory party members like Andrew Mitchell and Sir Bernard Jenkin backing it. This all makes it more likely to pass.  
One in three women will have had an abortion by the age of 45. It’s a fact of life and ending a pregnancy is a basic human right for anyone who chooses to do so. The reasons why are often complex and always deeply personal. This harassment must end. 
Speaking last Wednesday, Huq said that anyone seeking to terminate a pregnancy should be able to do it with "confidence, anonymity and dignity, without their trip up the path to the clinic being impeded by anti- or pro-abortion campaigners on the street outside."
She added: "Surely women deserve the same protections no matter where they are in the country, and that’s why we need national legislation to address this national problem."
"Access to health services should be a fundamental human right that can be exercised without fear of intimidation for all."
Please sign our petition and help us change the law to fix abortion provision once and for all.

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