The right to peaceful protest is fundamental to a democracy: something that was made ever clearer this week when the High Court ruled that the ban imposed on Extinction Rebellion’s London protests was “unlawful”. But what happens when those protests directly threaten human rights? What if they infringe on people’s privacy, safety and mental health?

Harassment outside abortion clinics is one of those situations. As the fight for global reproductive rights has gained fuel in recent years, protests have increased, with women being intimidated, manipulated, filmed and followed on their way to terminations. Yet little is being done to change this.

While two clinics in London have introduced buffer zones in recent years, banning protestors in a 100m radius and limiting their number to four at a time, the government has failed to respond to calls from campaigners to roll this measure out across England and Wales. Following a public consultation launched in 2017, the Home Office says it will not implement national buffer zones because protests are “not the norm” and most anti-abortion activities are “more passive” in nature. Protest-free areas, they say, “will not be a proportionate response” to a problem that doesn’t really seem like a problem at all. But the evidence tells a very different story.

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When the Home Office announced the results of its review into buffer zones in September 2018, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to uncover more about its decision-making process. But the FOI, published last month, suggests the review “misrepresents the impact of protesters on patients” and the government’s decision was based on “incomplete evidence”. The FOI also found that one civil servant working on the consultation was recorded as stating “there is [a] need to be seen to do something but [we] don’t want to actually do something”. 

More than 2,500 testimonies were reviewed by the Home Office for the consultation, with submissions from clinics, hospitals, police officers and other individuals, alongside a coalition of medical bodies including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), the British Medical Association (BMA) and The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare. They were accompanied by evidence packs submitted by Marie Stopes and BPAS, who run more than 130 abortion clinics between them, containing hundreds of case studies from women and staff. 

The claims made in the case studies included reports of patients being called “murderer” while approaching clinics, being followed upon arrival and departure, and being provided with “grossly erroneous information about the clinical risks, such as linking abortion to breast cancer”. Protestors have been recorded doing a number of damaging things outside clinics, including breastfeeding and holding dolls in front of patients, throwing red liquid at them, and standing in vigil-like formations singing hymns. In more extreme cases, one member of staff at Marie Stopes in Leeds Centre recalls how a man once knocked on the clinic door and shouted “baby killing b*******”, while Karen Lannon of Marie Stopes in Manchester states that one woman was asked by a protester if she could “buy the baby” from her. 

The emotional and psychological impact that such incidents have on patients can last for minutes or years. One woman who visited BPAS Doncaster in 2017 says she suffered an anxiety attack after protesters pushed her partner and “wouldn’t stop following” her once she left. Another woman, who was told by protesters that she and her boyfriend “would be condemned to hell”, says she is still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder two years on from her termination.

Protesters gathered outside BPAS Streatham on Sunday (Janet Baker)

Eppie Howard, who visited BPAS Richmond in July 2017, tells The Independent she was faced with several protestors holding placards reading “mother” on arrival. “One had a very graphic image of a bloodied aborted foetus which was horrible,” she recalls. “When I left the clinic after my procedure, a man brought out a bible from his coat pocket and started reading out loud to me as I walked out of the gate. He stood directly in my path, so I had to cross the road to avoid him.” The man followed Howard and her mother to their car, continuing to read the prayer, then followed the car as they pulled off. 

The protesters Howard encountered might not have been as aggressive as some of the incidents reported in the case studies, but they still had a profound impact. “It made me feel looked down on and upset during my day at BPAS and added to the trauma of my procedure that day,” she says. “I felt alienated as a woman and it made me angry that such blatant ignorance still exists”.

Not only patients feel the impact of anti-abortion protesters. Staff members who submitted evidence in the Home Office review reported feeling unsafe at work, citing instances of harassment and intimidation, with some alleging that protesters vandalised their cars. Peter Jackson of Marie Stopes in Birmingham claims that protesters once super glued the clinic’s key code lock so that nobody could access the centre.

Matthew Richards, treatment unit manager at BPAS Richmond, says he has witnessed many distressing incidents outside the clinic, recalling one example when a domestic violence victim visited with her abusive partner. The partner gave the woman’s phone number to a protester while she was inside, and she later received texts from pro-life activists telling her abortion was “evil”. On another occasion, Richards explains how one woman was “grabbed” by protesters on her way into the clinic. “She was so distressed that she ran from the protestors and fell through the consultation reception doors,” Richards says. Even just witnessing such incidents can be traumatic, he adds. “Staff also have the right to work in a safe environment which is free of harassment and judgement so they can concentrate on providing optimal care to the clients accessing the service.”

Shelley Doherty, front of house at Marie Stopes in Manchester, explains that she regularly sees women walk away from the clinic when they notice protestors standing outside, which she says is an “almost daily” occurrence. “Some women phone us and ask if we will go out and collect them from up the street. We walk the ladies out too. It’s our job to console them when they come in.” Doherty explains that her team regularly dispose of anti-abortion paraphernalia that has been handed to patients containing false medical claims and urging women seeking terminations to “see the scans”. “I’ll always say, ‘Do you want me to put that into the bin?’ And every time they go: ‘Yes please.’ They get very upset.”

Since the FOI results were published, more than 30 organisations, including the BMA and RCOG, have written to current home secretary, Priti Patel, calling for an urgent review of the original consultation. But, when asked by The Independent, the Home Office says “there are already powers in place” to prevent harmful protests and did not reveal plans to conduct another consultation into buffer zones.

The two clinics in London have already seen major improvements since their respective local councils introduced buffer zones. Sally O’Brien, operational manager at Marie Stopes in Ealing, which was the first UK abortion clinic to be granted a buffer zone in April 2018, explains that while protesters continue to visit, they are now far away enough not to impact patients. “It’s a lot calmer now,” she adds. The only downside is that protesters now don’t know who is coming to the clinic and who is simply passing by. “I’ve had complaints from residents that their daughters are being approached all the time when they’re just trying to walk home,” O’Brien adds. But the result has been mostly positive, with Richards saying the same for BPAS in Richmond, which was granted a buffer zone in March.

“It has helped immensely,” he says, noting “significant changes” in both the women accessing their services and the staff. “Women coming to the clinic are now a lot more comfortable coming into the unit and are no longer entering the doors distressed, upset, intimidated and angry as a result of being harassed by protestors. The staff morale has risen, too.”

One argument often levelled at those in favour of buffer zones is that they inhibit free speech. But this reasoning is legally erroneous, explains Raj Chada, criminal defence lawyer and protest specialist at London law firm at Hodge Jones & Allen. “The right to free speech is a qualified right, but when your actions harass or intimidate others, then your right to free speech can be curtailed,” he tells The Independent. “It is difficult to see how these protests outside abortion clinics are designed to do anything other than harass women at a particularly vulnerable time.”

It’s unclear why the government would be reluctant to enforce buffer zones across England and Wales to protect women undergoing legal and safe procedures, but campaigners suspect political motivation. “Fighting on behalf of women has never made it terribly high up the political agenda,” says Howard. O’Brien thinks introducing buffer zones is simply “too contentious” from a political standpoint. “The government doesn’t want to look like it’s in favour of abortion because they don’t want to lose the vote of people who agree with the protestors,” she says.

Several members of parliament are strong advocates for buffer zones. London Mayor Sadiq Khan was one of the key supporters for the campaign to implement a protest-free zone outside Marie Stopes in Ealing. “The right to peaceful protest must be respected, but we must never tolerate behaviour that seeks to deliberately harass and intimidate women,” Khan tells The Independent. “Pregnant women have a right to receive medical advice and treatment free from intimidation and staff have a right to go to work. The government must conduct a full and comprehensive review of all the evidence to ensure women and staff are free from harassment.”

Another vocal supporter of buffer zones, Stella Creasy MP, has been aggressively targeted by anti-abortion protesters herself for her pro-choice views. “You cannot claim to defend free speech unless you are prepared to also call out those who abuse it,” Creasy says. “That this hasn’t been stopped yet shows why we must reform the laws that the home secretary claimed were in place to deal with these people and prevent this form of toxic abuse becoming normalised in the UK.”

Rebecca Hitchen, campaigns manager at the End Violence Against Women Coalition agrees, explaining that women’s ability to access safe and legal abortion is a non-negotiable part of freedom and equality “and relates to rights over bodily autonomy which are not yet fully won”.

In response to further enquiries from The Independent as to why the government is dragging its heels when it comes to enforcing buffer zones outside clinics that perform abortions nationwide, a Home Office spokesperson says: “This is a sensitive and complex issue, which is why last year we conducted an in-depth review of protests outside abortion clinics. The right to protest is a vital part of a democratic society, but it is completely unacceptable that anyone should feel harassed or intimidated, and we are clear we expect the police to take action in such cases.” The statement continues by explaining that there are already “powers in place” to restrict harmful protests, and clinics are encouraged to make use of these to ensure the patients are not subjected to harassment or intimation.

And yet, in the Home Office enquiry, those who said they had reported incidents claimed that effective police intervention is rare. Either the protestors had left by the time police arrived, or their actions had become less severe. Some staff members at abortion clinics explained they have been reluctant to contact police because protesters were elderly, or they were unsure whether or not laws had been broken. Others say protesting action was simply too frequent to report. “We would constantly be on the phone to police if we called every time they were outside of the clinic (every day!),” writes one staff member at Marie Stopes in central London.

Marie Stopes launches #SmashAbortionStigma campaign

A spokesperson for BPAS adds that while many clinics do report protestors, “in no area has there been a solution found by the police to the issues raised”. The existing legislation in place does not work in the context of clinic protests, they add. Many victims, they explain, do not want to report harassment because in doing so, they would have to disclose that they had an abortion. “Protesters are able to target women with impunity because they know this”.

Around 200,000 abortions are carried out each year in England and Wales. Without buffer zones outside clinics, thousands of women seeking abortions are at risk of harassment. But if feminist movements continue to make waves when it comes to reproductive autonomy, as they have with #RepealTheEighth and the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, campaigners won’t allow this issue to continue – at least not silently.

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