The Battle Mounting Outside Britain’s Abortion Clinics, An Investigation

·16-min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

*Trigger warning, some of the themes discussed in this article may be distressing. For information about abortions and helplines, scroll to the bottom*

The line is faint, but it’s there.

Alice is perched on the edge of a toilet in the staff stalls at H&M, holding a pregnancy test between her fingers. She squints. It’s a cheap one, two pounds. She takes a picture of it and sends it to a friend: can I get a second opinion on this?

Her knee bounces as she waits for a reply, but she’s not anxious. Not really. Women have options in the U.K. At the time, she is a 20-year-old Social Anthropology student at the University of Edinburgh, still in the early days of a semi-casual relationship, with her entire life stretched out ahead of her. She knows what she wants almost immediately. The next day – after some research and a second test just to be certain – she calls up Chalmers Sexual Health Centre and tells them she is looking to get an abortion.

'I knew straight away that, no, that’s not going to be my path right now,' she says.

The day of the procedure isn’t her first time at Chalmers. She’d visited over a year ago to get her Nexplanon implant taken out and trusted the staff there. The streets outside are extremely narrow, so the six people waiting outside the clinic that day form a crowd. She had heard rumours about them, but seeing them was different. They’re handing out leaflets and chanting loudly, a sort of prayer. They’re here to protest abortions – they're here to protest... her.

Alice can feel their eyes moving along the length of her body, homing in. Her feet begin to move of their own accord, as if independent from her legs. She can hear the clicks of her shoes against the pavement, the blood pumping in her ears. Her eyes glaze over in the way womens’ do when they are avoiding suspicious men: a simultaneously pointed and unfocused gaze, hoping to look unapproachable. Hoping to become, for a moment, invisible.

'It made me feel really angry. And a little helpless as well,' Alice says. 'You feel like someone should be doing something about that.'

While clinics across the country underwent a brief reprieve from anti-abortion activists at the start of the pandemic – when social distancing rules were still firmly enforced – protests have returned, and with unexpected new vigour. Many clinics are facing unprecedented crowds and clinics with no previous record of picketing, are being targeted for the first time.

Photo credit: Getty
Photo credit: Getty

'We are seeing increased activity, an increase of people involved,' Rachael Clarke, Head of Public Affairs and Policy at abortion provider British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), says.

Currently, 40 Days for Life, a US-based organisation with outposts in Britain, is conducting ‘vigils’ outside 14 abortion clinics across the UK until the end of October. It comes at the heels of Texas’s law prohibiting abortions as early as six weeks – before many women even know they are pregnant – and giving individuals the right to sue abortion providers, which came into force last month.

Clarke states there has been a recent ‘Americanisation’ of these protests, thanks in no small part to the internet; social media in particular. Over the last decade, transatlantic anti-abortion groups founded in US states have infiltrated, and now spearhead, the protests here.

In response, the pro-choice movement is also gaining momentum, with activist groups lobbying for policy changes about who can congregate outside clinics. The clash of ideologies translates, often, to a real life line in the sand, with picketers facing off in the streets.

As this battle worsens, it has huge implications for the women seeking family planning services up and down the country.

Photo credit: . - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: . - Hearst Owned


The Clinics

For decades, anti-abortion protestors have congregated outside Britain’s abortion clinics, hoping to change the minds of women trying to access the urgent reproductive services inside. But lately, their efforts have increased, with more active collaboration between anti-abortion organisations.

'They're coordinating and supporting each other's messages more than they used to do,' says Dr. Pam Lowe, an academic at Aston University specialising in female reproductive rights. 'There is evidence that the anti-abortion organisations are now able to mobilise more people who are already against abortion.'

Sometimes, they stand and pray, or sing hymns. Others lug placards depicting bloody images of foetuses or religious rhetoric – ‘Jesus won’t forgive you’ (if you go through with this) or ‘Jesus will forgive you’ (if you turn back now). Some carry body cams to record women accessing the clinic and threaten to release the footage online. There are reported incidents of protestors handing out knitted booties or rosary beads, touting pamphlets with medical misinformation, and shouting ‘mummy!’ at women entering the clinic.

Many of the women they encounter are young and vulnerable. There are victims of rape or domestic abuse. Women with wanted pregnancies that have revealed severe medical complications in their antenatal screenings. Trauma-ridden women with taut relationships to religious domination or patriarchal judgement. Women who feel guilty. Women who are grieving.

Alice had to get through an hourlong safeguarding appointment before they signed her off for a medical abortion. They discussed her options, made sure she wasn’t being pressured, abused, or felt like she had no other choice. She says, 'One of the things the protestors say is that they’re there to inform [women] of all their other options. I think it’s really patronising to the healthcare workers, because they go through every option with every single person who enters that clinic.'

Emily, a midwife at a Marie Stopes abortion clinic in Bristol, has colleagues who have been accused of being ‘murderers’ and asked how they sleep at night. A routine part of her day is to phone patients ahead of their appointments and warn them when protestors are on site.

'[We] let them know what to expect, so things aren’t a shock to them. But imagine receiving a phone call before your appointment, which you may already be having a whole host of emotions about,' she says. 'To tell you that there’s somebody outside the clinic who is displaying images that are distressing, that may have a bodycam, that may be quite vocal. It’s just really sad.'

But over the last few years, pro-choice activists and policy makers have mobilised in turn. Groups like Sister Supporter – which organises counter-protests and whose members accompany women to their appointments – and campaigns including ‘Back Off’ launched by BPAS, have spent years compiling patient testimonies to depict the extent of the harassment.

Lobbyists and MPs are pushing for national Safe Access Zones, or buffer zones, (with no anti-abortion protests within 150 metres of an abortion clinic) to ensure safety and privacy for women trying to access health services. So far, only 3 constituencies across the U.K. have implemented a buffer zone.

For the countless others, there is an ongoing battle over the pavement outside their very doors. One that has little to do with abortions, themselves. It questions instead: who, here, has the right of way?

Photo credit: . - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: . - Hearst Owned

The Protestors

Across the West, anti-abortion sentiment is mounting. In 2019, thousands of people attended a pro-life march in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Last year, at the peak of the pandemic, Poland slinked through a near-total abortion ban. In the latest blow to Roe v Wade - America’s 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalised abortions nationwide - Texas joined five other states in criminalising abortions as early as six weeks.

'There was a really bad time for anti-abortion activism back in the 90s. There were lots of arrests, and then things calmed down. But now, things have picked up again,' says Dr. Lowe.

'It’s not necessarily that [the protestors] are getting money from America now,' adds Clarke, 'but they are getting advice on how best to harass people outside clinics, how to engage [with women seeking terminations], how to stop them. The messages are the same. You see leaflets about abortion procedures or drugs that have never been used in this country, which have clearly come from Facebook. '

For a while now, Dr Lowe and her colleague, have been carrying out a long-term ethnographic study into abortion rights in public spaces. According to her findings, in England, Scotland, and Wales, about 80 per cent of these protestors are Catholic, and 10 to 15 per cent are Evangelicals.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

'The people who stand outside abortion clinics, they’re bearing witness. They're literally standing there to acknowledge the evil as they see it, that happens within the site, so they're [there] specifically to draw attention to the clinic,' Dr Lowe says. 'It’s more than just praying because they could pray anywhere. They choose to pray there.'

Sheridan, a retiree and devout Christian from Brighton, joined the 40 Days for Life campaign a year ago. He had always held pro-life views, but the organisation’s message, to lead with prayer, was what drew him. Every week this month, with a handful of others, he travels down to the Marie Stopes clinic on Preston Road to stand vigil and pray.

Most of the conversations with strangers are emotionally charged. Their initial signs for this season’s campaign, Pray to End Abortion, provoked an outpouring of contempt from passers-by, so Sheridan had them replaced. Now, they read: We Are Here to Help You.

'People are carrying a lot of pain. And we don’t wish to add to that, we don’t wish to open wounds, to cause wounds,' Sheridan says. 'There is an awful lot of pain around [abortion], a lot of heartache. And that’s borne by most people who stop and talk to me who say, ‘don’t you understand the pain?’ or quite often, ‘you can’t understand the pain’. It’s not really a good starting point for a conversation. That's something I feel I have to work on, because I don't think that prayer is a negative thing. For people who are hurting and struggling, prayer should be a positive thing.'

Alice isn’t religious, but there’s something about prayer that has always beguiled her. Perhaps it’s the synchronised sway of the bodies, or the sweeping hum of communion. She is entranced by passionate people. She likes to get lost in their fervour. But the use of prayer outside Chalmers felt unnerving. A thin, shimmering veil concealing a bid for control.

She tells me, 'I just find it to be sinister. It’s like, praying, singing hymns, that has to be peaceful, right? But obviously, we know that’s not the case in this context: you're outside of a clinic where you don't know the mental state of everyone going in, plus you're holding really aggressive signs. It feels like gaslighting. I think that was the one thing I replayed the most. The eeriness of that contrast.'

When approached with a request for a comment, another 40 Days for Life representative insisted that, 'before the interview begins, I would ask that you pray with me – all you have to do is sit in respectful silence and listen to the prayer, as I ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit and that God would soften your heart and open your mind to Him and the pro-life message.'

Dr Lowe is careful to note that these protestors are not representative of wider religious communities. 'The vast majority of people of Christian faith,' she says, 'do not think people should be outside clinics.' These protestors signify an extreme, but their religious reasoning provides a barbed-wire fence of protection.

'They genuinely believe that they’re following what their faith has told them to do. It is a form of religious practice, in a way, and so they can’t see that what they do might be harmful,' she goes on. 'Not to put too fine a point on it, but if there was a group of Muslim men outside an abortion clinic, they would not be there for very long. It’s because Christianity gets a pass, right? Christianity always gets a pass in this country.'

Sheridan is an earnest, soft-spoken man. He chooses his words carefully and admits when finding the right ones proves difficult. He is hopeful the women can see through the nasty caricatures he says are peddled about people like him. He wants, desperately, to reassure them that they are safe. He cannot believe that what he’s doing could be seen as harassment.

'Women are a vital part of society. They have so much to contribute, and bringing a new life is a beautiful thing. I don't want to go around condemning them,' Sheridan says.

He goes on, 'One of the wonderful things which Jesus says is, ‘I didn't come into the world to condemn you for not accepting what I say, I came into the world to save you.’ OK, I'm not a Messiah, or anything. Following the footsteps of my Messiah, I'm in no position to condemn anyone. And getting that across is very difficult.'

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: . - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: . - Hearst Owned

The Battle

A Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), designed for local councils to deal with anti-social behaviour, imposes policed restrictions on public spaces. In 2018, Ealing became the first constituency to grant a PSPO to their local abortion clinic, to push back the deluge of protestors outside. This year, at the three-year mark, they renewed it, citing the restrictions as ‘lawful, necessary and proportionate’.

Dr Rupa Huq, Labour MP for Ealing, tells ELLE U.K., 'Ealing council did this as a last resort after 23 years of protests. It was an imaginative use of a local by law designed for ASBO type issues. It took many hours of officer time and has been defended successfully in higher courts, but it is a costly process. National legislation is urgently needed for what is a national problem.'

Richmond and Manchester have followed suit. There is also international precedent – in Canada, Australia and some US states, buffer zones already exist. But Britain has shirked national action to the issue before, with the Home Office refusing to ban protests outside abortion clinics in 2018.

After the lobbying efforts of pro-choice group Back Off Scotland, Edinburgh council committed to enforce buffer zones in February – but have been stagnant since. Adam McVey, SNP Councillor for Leith says he 'will continue to work with the Scottish Government…to progress effective action to protect women across Scotland, regardless of where medical facilities are.'

Meanwhile, a Scottish Government spokesperson has said, 'Our Programme for Government already includes a commitment to support any local authority who wishes to use bye-laws to establish buffer zones – and we would invite them to do so as the swiftest way to have such zones enacted.'

It is a stalemate, in which the local and national authorities are passing the buck amongst themselves.

But PSPOs are not a sustainable solution, either. Polly Jackman is a lawyer for The Good Law Project and campaigner for Sister Supporter, points out, 'PSPOs are only in force for three years before they have to be renewed. They also put the onus on individual councils, already cash-stretched, to find solutions for the harassment of abortion clinics, when the responsibility should be with central government.'

'They also create a post-code lottery. Those accessing abortion care in Ealing, Manchester and Richmond are protected, those accessing care in the rest of the United Kingdom are not. That is hugely unfair. There is evidence that harassment is increasing, and so this problem is only getting worse. Our government, unfortunately, has declined to help,' she says.

A Home Office spokesperson has told us: 'It is completely unacceptable that anyone should feel harassed or intimidated. The police and local authorities have powers to restrict harmful protests and we expect them to take action in such cases. We recognise the importance of this matter and keep it under review.'

Photo credit: . - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: . - Hearst Owned

A Clash of Freedoms?

Sarah Olney, Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park, who tabled a Buffer Zone Bill in Parliament last year, says, 'If people want to challenge the legal right [to abortion], they're perfectly entitled to, but it's not the people who are seeking an abortion today who could do anything about that. They're not the right people to be targeting. And it is wrong to make them feel guilty or ashamed about the choice that they've made. It is wrong, to harass them, to intimidate them.'

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

To Sheridan, Safe Access Zones are an imposition on democratic freedoms. 'Simply saying we're going to impose a buffer zone is probably a bit much, because you're immediately imposing on someone else's freedoms when you do that,' he says. 'I think protecting the freedoms of the women is a priority. But I don't think that that necessarily leads to buffer zones.'

Amid revitalised discourse around violence against women and girls, the battle for territory outside abortion clinics reveals the feeble extent to which our society believes women. The clash is riddled with quiet doubt. Sustained national indecision asks: can these women, victims of this so-called harassment, be trusted when they testify in droves that it is traumatic? Can they decide, in fact, that it is harassment after all? Does it matter yet, when it’s only harassment – a key precursor to violence – and not legally, abuse? Armed with this suspicion, we can continue to look away.

Soon after the buffer zone came into force at a Marie Stopes clinic in Manchester, the protestors started disappearing entirely. Shelley Doherty, front of house assistant there, experienced almost five years of protestors hurling abuse. She talks of plastic foetuses displayed on tables, of pro-life mothers breastfeeding their babies outside.

'It was a horrible time – 30 years,' Doherty says. She and her colleagues had to collect written statements from women who had faced harassment as part of the evidence pack. The entire process took a year. 'We had to basically prove that clients were being harassed, which was bloody horrible. As women, we have got to consistently explain ourselves, just to access health care with privacy and dignity.'

But once the order finally landed, the protestors vanished. 'We got the order, and they went. That was it. It’s an absolute weight off. And I feel really proud to be part of that; part of this movement,' Doherty says. 'I just want it to happen for the rest of the country.'

For more information about your choices, visit British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) HERE

For information about NHS-funded abortions, visit Marie Stopes HERE

If you are vulnerable, isolated or at risk from domestic abuse, you can call 'Support Line' on 01708 765200.

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