By Rachael Clarke
When a woman finds herself pregnant and is considering her options, there are a number of places she can go to discuss her options and make a decision that works best for her.
That's what British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas) clinics are there for. We are an abortion provider but we also talk to women about their options and provide non-directive counselling.
When women come to see us or other abortion providers, they don't always know what to expect. But one thing they often do not ever expect to encounter are anti-abortion activists stood outside the clinic. Sadly, one in ten sites that provide abortion services have experienced these protests since the beginning of 2017.
The kinds of demonstrations vary. At one clinic in London there are people by the clinic gate every day trying to speak to every woman who enters and hand her a leaflet that calls her 'mum' and tells her, contrary to medical evidence, that abortion can give her breast cancer and leave her unable to bond with her existing children. At another clinic, protesters pray loudly outside and baby socks are left in the hedge by the entrance. Several others have protesters outside with oversized posters of dismembered foetuses, wearing body cameras as they watch women enter medical facilities.
For many years, women have reported to us that they feel intimidated, harassed and upset when they encounter these protests. Many are left in tears, asking why clinic staff have no powers to move the protesters away from the clinic gate. Some feel unable to get out of their car and call clinic staff to escort them past the protesters outside. Women whose much-wanted child would be unable to survive outside the womb show us the leaflets they're given as the protesters tell them 'not to do anything that will harm your child today'. They report being approached not only as they enter the clinic but as they leave as well. In Ealing, the protesters were quoted as saying: "If you pray, you won't be back here."
These tactics are not caring. They're not offering advice. They're not helping women in the most difficult of circumstances. They are, quite simply, cruel.
That is why Bpas has been running the Back Off campaign since 2014. Along with organisations such as the British Medical Association, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, the Royal College of Midwives, and Rape Crisis England and Wales we have been calling for the introduction of buffer zones around clinics - areas around the clinic gate where women are free to access healthcare without fear of intimidation or harassment. These types of zone are used in Canada, Australia, the USA. Countries such as France and South Africa having similar provisions. Meanwhile, the UK has no specific legislation and up until earlier this year, when Ealing Council took action, had no effective way of addressing the harm these protests do.
That is why we were disappointed that last week the home secretary made the decision not to pursue national legislation to address these issues. Instead, he left it to councils and the police to take action. That's all very well, until you realise we and other providers have heard time and again from police forces that they just don't believe they have the powers to take action.
We continue to work with councils across the country to introduce buffer zones like the one currently operating effectively in Ealing. We expect a number of councils to make progress on implementing these in the coming months. Their actions should be welcomed and supported. But there is no reason that a woman in Ealing should be protected from these clinic protests while a woman in Edgbaston is not.
That's why our campaign is not over. Women across the country deserve the right to access healthcare without fear of intimidation. Protecting that right is the job of government and we will continue to demand they do it.
Rachael Clarke manages public affairs and advocacy for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and runs Back Off - the campaign to introduce buffer zones outside abortion clinics.
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