As Amy* parked her car outside an abortion clinic in Birmingham, an unknown woman walked up to her.
She was already feeling worried, and was unprepared to be approached or confronted. The woman, who Amy soon realised was an anti-abortion protester, told her “do not kill your baby” and began speaking about God.
“It made me emotional - I was crying, and became scared to go in,” Amy said, admitting the experience has had a detrimental impact on her mental health.
And Amy is not alone. One woman in Liverpool described how anti-abortion protesters “hurled abuse” at her, saying she was a “disgrace”, “horrible”, and an “abomination.” Some women have been called “murderers” or had “mummy, don’t kill me!” yelled at them.
Others have told of trying to enter clinics when the ground outside is scattered with graphic foetus models, or while protesters distribute leaflets containing misinformation about the links between abortion and cancer.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has warned that these kinds of interventions will become increasingly common over the next few weeks for women and girls seeking medical treatment, as anti-abortion groups are set to amplify their presence outside clinics and hospitals across the UK.
It comes as “pro-life and prayer” movement 40 Days For Life, which was founded in Texas, begins its autumn “campaign”. Running from 28 September until 6 November, the organisation says this is a time of prayer, vigils and community outreach.
Others argue it is simply a time of more organised and more targeted harassment which can be “absolutely devastating for women who are getting treatment.”
Molly Boydon, public affairs officer at BPAS, told NationalWorld: “People can hold whatever views they like about abortion - I’m never going to deny anyone the right to their own beliefs. But I do not think you should be allowed to harass women at an abortion clinic - that, I fundamentally do not agree with.”
She said that the stories she has heard are “absolutely unbelievable”, and that many women are left “deeply traumatised”. In her experience, she feels the harassment has been getting worse in recent years.
“As it stands, you either walk through a barrage of harassment in order to access vital healthcare - or you don’t, and you feel you are unable to exercise one of your fundamental rights,” explained Ms Boydon, who is currently working to manage increased harassment outside BPAS clinics in Bournemouth, Cardiff, Merseyside and Sheffield.
40 Days For Life claim to be ‘peaceful and loving presence’
However, Robert Colquhoun, 40 Days For Life’s director of international campaigns, countered that the movement has been “completely mischaracterised” - and even alleged women and pro-choice groups fabricate stories of harassment. He told NationalWorld: “Our vigils exist to pray and offer help and support to vulnerable women, many of whom often do not actually want an abortion. We do not judge, harass or intimidate. We are a peaceful and loving presence.”
Mr Colquhoun added that all volunteers have to sign a document which states they will attend vigils in a “peaceful, legal, and prayerful” manner, and the only authorised “actions” are to hand out leaflets or have conversations.
But while 40 Days For Life may speak proudly of “helping 1,000 women in the UK choose life,” women who have been to abortion clinics have instead told of the trauma they experienced - and there are concerns over those who may have been driven away from medical centres turning towards unsafe methods.
How do buffer zones work?
It is of course not just 40 Days For Life which holds pro-life campaigns. According to BPAS, 100,000 women a year visit a clinic target by anti-abortion organisations. And it is groups like these that have encouraged the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and other women’s rights groups to call for nationwide ‘buffer zones’ outside UK abortion clinics.
Currently, these zones (areas around a clinic or hospital where certain types of activity, such as protests, are banned) are campaigned for locally - and public space protection orders (PSPOs) can be set up outside individual clinics. For instance, Sister Supporter, a pro-choice, anti-harassment group, achieved the UK’s first abortion clinic PSPO in Ealing, London, in 2018.
Since then, there have been further zones in Richmond, Manchester and Birmingham - but these are incredibly costly for local councils, who in addition to introducing the PSPOs often then have to fight legal challenges brought against them. It also risks a ‘postcode lottery’ for women seeking help.
Something that would stop this is BPAS’ proposed amendment to the Public Order Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament. The amendment, which has received “a lot of cross-party support”, would introduce buffer zones outside abortion clinics across the country and also allow police to intervene if these are broken, since officers currently “do not have any powers to move [the protesters on]”.
Ms Boydon said that “this is a national problem which needs a national solution”, while 40 Days For Life told NationalWorld if nationwide buffer zones were introduced, it would “criminalise silent prayer”.
How Scotland is responding to abortion protests
In Scotland, there is also Parliamentary work being done to achieve abortion clinic buffer zones. Gillian Mackay, MSP for Central Scotland, has launched a private members’ bill which she hopes will ensure “no one has to face intimidation or harassment”.
The Scottish Green Party politician, who has been collaborating with campaign group Back off Scotland on the bill, told NationalWorld: “Why anyone would try to undermine another person’s bodily autonomy is baffling to me. The trauma people are left with is intolerable.There’s also of course a deep-rooted misogyny in these protests, as none of these groups are standing outside vasectomy clinics.”
She added that the harassment affects staff employed at these clinics too. They become victims of abuse when simply trying to go to work for the day.
Over the summer, the bill went through the consultation stage. This is where constituents can give their opinions on the proposed legislation.
Mackay said many women filled out the forms with their own “harrowing” stories of harassment. The MSP said she has also noticed “anti-choice campaigns” had sent ‘how to fill out consultation forms’ templates to their supporters, since many responses are duplicates. Some too have completed the forms numerous times - which she could see through the website’s IP address tracker.
The consultation ended in August, so the bill will soon be making its way through the legislative process. It will take some time, but Mackay is pleased with the amount of support it has received from the public.
“We are under no illusions - we know people will take this legislation to court, and it will possibly be referred to the Supreme Court, so we needed to make sure it was as robust as possible,” she told NationalWorld. Aware of the issues of a ‘postcode lottery’, the bill also includes a clause that says councils should have powers to vary the size of the buffer zone depending on each site.
Mackay explained: “If you’re 150m away from the boundary of one site, you may be nowhere near it. But if you’re 150m away from the Glasgow Royal for example, you’re at the nearest bus stop. So that just displaces harassment to public transport points, which people will probably be using to attend clinics and hospitals.”
Recently, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon committed to working with Mackay to “safeguard access to abortion services”, which has made the possibility of the bill passing seem all the more likely.
“The stories of harassment and intimidation are something people think just happens in America, but it’s happening here too,” Mackay commented. “So we need to demand further progress and not just sit still and wait for rights to go backwards.”
*We have used a pseudonym to protect the woman’s privacy.