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Protest-free zones are a must outside clinics

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Even where abortions are legal, women are still having to fight to exercise their rights without harassment. Debra Sweet under a Creative Commons Licence

Why are women still having to campaign for the right to a harassment-free abortion? asks Rosa Ellis.

A stand-off was taking place outside a London clinic: two groups, huddled under umbrellas. On one side, mostly men over 40; on the other, mostly women in their twenties. One group was there to tell women approaching the clinic that they shouldn’t have an abortion. The others were there to point out that this was inappropriate. I don’t think I need to tell you which was which.

Lined up on the pavement were laminated A4 signs bearing slogans such as ‘Abortion wounds fathers too – we are here to help YOU’, photos of adorable toddlers, and plastic models of pale-pink, perfectly formed babies the size of a walnut.

The organizer of the group standing up for women’s rights was Anna Veglio-White. She had been standing there in the rain since 9am. Anna is a recent graduate and has lived in the area all her life; a few weeks ago she jogged past the protesters and felt such anger at their behaviour that she decided to do something.

The two groups huddling under umbrellas made for an odd scene, but it was when I walked towards the clinic and was approached by a man who told me that abortion causes cancer (it doesn’t) that things got very strange.  

This isn’t the first time anti-abortion protesters have campaigned outside this clinic. And it isn’t the only clinic. Across the country, thousands of women are being subjected to unwanted attention by actions that range from silently holding graphic pictures of dead foetuses, to following women down the road and shouting about abortion publicly, to assault.

It is a legal right to access abortion in this country – it has been for 48 years – but there are so many anti-abortion protesters and so much harassment that the government is doing nothing about, that women like Anna are angry.  

Four years ago, the British Parental Advisory Service (BPAS) noticed an increase in anti-abortion protesters outside their clinics. They are organized by groups Abort67 and 40 Days for Life and others, who also march through cities to make their point and train people to campaign against women’s rights. It is thought that regular demonstrations take place in front of around half the UK’s abortion providers, the BBC reported recently.

Academics at the University of Aston recently collected feedback from over 200 women who walked past protesters on their way into a clinic and found they had experienced a range of aggressive experiences: eight were followed, one was assaulted, and many were filmed.

Being filmed was a tactic the women found particularly disturbing, and standing outside the clinic I could see why: a tall man in a black raincoat held up a phone pointed in the direction of the entrance and looked on silently.

The authors of the report were keen to stress that even when the protesters were being peaceful and acting within the law they caused the women a significant amount of stress just by being there.

Across the country, grassroots feminist groups like Anna’s are protesting for the right to a hassle-free abortion, and at a national level several organizations are working on it too. In November last year BPAS launched a campaign calling for a solution to the immediate problem. It’s a fairly simple solution, and it has already been done in Australia, Canada and parts of the US. It is also supported by dozens of groups – from BPAS to Mumsnet and the British Humanist Society – as well as 118,000 individuals in the UK.

They are calling for an area around clinics which protesters aren’t allowed to enter. Known as buffer zones, exclusion zones or protest-free zones. It would mean women using the clinics wouldn’t have to walk in feeling intimidated, and women like Anna wouldn’t have to spend their Saturday mornings standing in the rain.

Abigail Fitzgibbons is one of the women at BPAS running the campaign for buffer zones, and she tells me they usually advise women’s rights groups not to counter-protest outside as it can bring more attention to the women using the clinic. Though she is very clear, she understands why they do: because there is so much anger about this issue and the government is doing nothing about it.

Anna is well aware that her group being there could bring more attention to the women using the clinic, but her aim is to get the local council to ban the protesters and she reasons that it is worth it in the long term if they manage this. She is not the only one who wants them gone, either. She says she started a Facebook group in an angry moment and was surprised at the high level of local support, and as we talked two cars tooted support as they passed her banner.

When I talk to Paul I can see why she is so upset. In his forties, Paul has greying hair and a calm voice. After he tells me that abortion is linked to breast cancer, I ask him if he worries about upsetting women, but he avoids the question. His mild manner and friendly tone contradict a dangerous lack of logic – he jumps from discussing a government that suppresses scientific research because of an agenda to rule the entire world, to bad spirits being the cause of some women having abortions and the need for exorcism, while in between talking about wanting to help women.

Paul’s logic seems to exist in a different world from mine, and I’m not surprised women who have to deal with this on their way into a clinic find it hard. What I am surprised about is that, so far, nothing has been done about it.

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