What is the problem?
Over recent years there has been an escalation in anti-abortion activity outside clinics in the UK. Women attending pregnancy advice and abortion centres are now regularly exposed to groups of anti-abortion activists standing directly outside. Many of these activists bear large banners of dismembered foetuses, distribute leaflets containing misleading information about abortion, and follow and question women as they enter or leave the centres. Often, these people carry cameras strapped to their chests or positioned on a tripod. Women report feeling intimidated and distressed by this activity as they try to access a lawful healthcare service in confidence. Staff at clinics have on occasion needed escorting from the building by the police. Recently, NHS staff on premises where a clinic is located have felt so intimidated by the presence outside they have asked for the abortion service to be withdrawn. The closure of a service as a result of anti-abortion activity would be unprecedented.
Because this activity is quite unusual there is no legislation in place that covers the scope of what is occurring outside clinics and allows the police to take effective action to prevent it. Appeals to the church leaders who support many of these people to reflect on the impact on women have failed.
That is why we believe the time has come to act.
What do women want?
Women want to be able to enter centres without being confronted by these people. This comment from a woman entering a clinic in Milton Keynes is typical of the way in which many women feel:
“When arriving people were outside with signs – it made me scared to come in and was physically shaking. They shouldn’t be allowed to stand outside and people to be made to feel like this.”
What is the solution?
We believe we need specific legislation to ensure women can access pregnancy advice and abortion centres free from interference and intimidation, as has been enacted in other countries. We propose the establishment of “buffer” or “access” zones around registered pregnancy advisory bureaux and clinics, in which anti-abortion activity cannot take place. This would stop activity taking place directly outside centres, ensure women are not approached unsolicited, and prevent other activities designed to cause distress – eg filming and strewing the pathway with pictures or models of foetuses.
Isn’t this a restriction on freedom of speech, and the right to protest?
We believe limiting the ability to interfere with women as they try to access a lawful medical service in confidence does not represent an undue restriction on our existing freedoms. These people have every right to campaign for greater restrictions on women’s reproductive choices and there are plenty of opportunities and locations in which to do so. However the space immediately outside a clinic should not be one of them. This is not about closing down debate on abortion. But women accessing pregnancy advice and abortion services are not seeking debate – they are trying to make their own personal decision about their own pregnancy.