Calls for law to stop anti-abortion protests outside clinics

28/11/14

Two cards saying pro-life and pro-choice

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) is calling for new laws to move anti-abortion protesters from the doorstep of its clinics.

BPAS, one of the UK's main abortion providers, has told Newsbeat some patients are being confronted by graphic content.

These include large posters and leaflets with pictures showing dismembered foetuses.

But anti-abortion groups, like Abort67, say they are "educating" the public.

Department of Health figures for 2013 suggest there were 185,331 terminations in England and Wales.

"We've really asked protesters to think a lot harder about the kind of activity that they're undertaking outside clinics," says BPAS spokeswoman Clare Murphy.

"We completely respect people's right to protest, but we simply feel that approaching women, causing them harassment and distress at what's already quite a difficult time in their life, really isn't right."

Abortion figures (England and Wales) - NHS, Department of Health figures

    • 185,331 - 2013
    • 185,122 - 2012
    • 181,582 - 2003

BPAS is now campaigning for the Government to create "access zones" outside British abortion clinics to help women access them without be confronted by pro-life protesters.

That's similar to what already happens in parts of Canada. The zones would mean protesters have to be at least 10 metres away from the entrance of a clinic.

The campaign, called Back Off, is also supported by other bodies, including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Rape Crisis England and Wales, the Royal College of Midwives and Violence Against Women.

"We've repeatedly asked these people to move away from right outside clinics. But unfortunately, they continue to be there and it really is becoming a problem," says BPAS spokeswoman Clare Murphy.

"We think the time has come perhaps to consider whether we do need new regulations or new legislative frameworks to protect the areas outside clinics and to move protesters further away and to reduce the level of distress that this is causing them."

Abort67

Ruth Rawlins anti-abortion protestor
Image caption Ruth Rawlins from Abort67

Abort67 is one of the most prominent anti-abortion group whose members stand outside clinics in England and Wales.

Group leader Ruth Rawlins views Abort67 as an educational group not a protest group.

They display graphic posters of parts of foetuses as well as showing passers-by plastic foetuses at various stages of growth.

She says: "We're just here to show the truth, firstly, about abortion, and what abortion does to the pre-born child."

"The images are disgusting, we don't like looking at these images, but the reason that they are so offensive can only be because the act of abortion is so offensive. So we're simply showing the public the service that BPAS are providing."

She adds that the group has worked with the police and that they have "backed up a little bit" from the doorstep of one clinic.

"We've said to BPAS before we'll happily close down the display, never display outside a clinic again if they will show the women the pre-born child before the abortion and the pre-born child, you know, after the abortion.

"We believe that this will give them an informed choice and then there's no need for us to stand there."

Stomach with "mine not yours" written on it

Newsbeat spoke to a 21-year-old woman, who didn't wish to be identified. She says she never wanted children and found out her boyfriend had cheated on her.

She used a central Marie Stopes clinic to terminate the pregnancy and said walking past the protesters outside was "really upsetting".

"I mean at first I was just completely confused. I thought they were maybe people from the clinic handing out, like information leaflets and then I noticed the people praying.

"Then it started to sink in that actually these are activists.

"When you first see it, it's just really upsetting. The fact that they think that's ok and it's ok to make someone feel like that. They must see the emotion on all the girls' faces that walk in there.

"It's quite scary as well too. You're already scared about going in there, it seems like such a big thing in your life and to see that as well.

"It just feels like something you'd watch on TV, not something that you should be going through."

She adds: "They're not aggressive or angry or anything, which in a way kind of makes it worse because it makes you feel like you're evil. And you're the one that's truly doing something wrong.

"You're already aware that you're about to decide to take something's life away. I mean it's not a life yet truly, but you are aware that you're about to stop that process."

"It's not like you haven't thought it through and you're just doing it on a whim. Nobody has an abortion on a whim. So it just reinforces a bunch of emotions that you don't need and probably can't handle much at that point in time. "

Comments from BPAS clinic users around the UK
Image caption Comments left at BPAS clinics by patients and staff

Suzan Briggs had a different experience. She changed her mind after speaking to Abort67.

"They took me to a coffee shop, they bought me tea and I said I would go home and try to think about it," says the 27-year-old.

"I tried not to listen to them, but they were praying for me and I was crying and shaking.

"The way they talked to me gave me faith and their encouragement made me decide to keep the baby."

Marie Stopes

Genevieve Edwards, director of policy at Marie Stopes UK says: "We respect everyone's right to peaceful protest but hope that protestors in turn will respect a woman's right to access legal health services."

Ms Edwards adds that Marie Stopes do have trained security escorts who can assist women who are worried about going to their clinics.

"If you at all concerned, phone us and we can talk you through it. We can make sure that you get in safely, and you will be ok.

"I wouldn't want anybody to be anxious or upset about getting past protesters, when I know that for many this isn't something people are doing lightly, anyway, in any event.

"So the last thing we want is for anybody to feel any extra, you know, stress or worry about this."

Last week in Northern Ireland, anti-abortionist Bernadette Smyth was found guilty of harassing a Marie Stopes clinic director at her Belfast city centre offices.

Bernadette Smyth, who leads the anti-abortion group Precious Life, was warned she could face a jail sentence for her campaign.

What the police say

Person with tape on their mouth which has "life" written on it

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) tells Newsbeat that each force decides if and how they police protests and demonstrations in their area.

A spokesperson for ACPO sent this statement: "Police respect an individual or individuals right to peaceful protest.

"Police will always try and engage with organisers to ensure that any planned demonstration is done so in a way that ensures both their own safety and that of the public.

"The handling of protests in a particular area is an operational decision for the force."

What the Home Office say

A Home Office spokesperson says: "Peaceful protest is a vital part of a democratic society, provided it is conducted within the law.

"But protesters' rights need to be balanced with the rights of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community.

"Rights to peaceful protest do not extend to threatening behaviour and the police have powers to deal with any such acts."

Residents protest

Some of the clinics are situated in residential areas and some residents have formed groups to protest against the demonstrations.

At least one residential group in London has gathered more than 300 signatures objecting to the protests by anti-abortion demonstrators.

They took the petition to a local council meeting, asking for "action to reduce the disruption to local residents by the ongoing anti-abortion protest outside the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) clinic".

"We wish to make it very clear that we are NOT seeking to limit free speech or the rights of people to protest, nor are we taking sides in the abortion debate.

"We simply wish our formerly quiet streets to be just that, quiet and unthreatening.

"We ask that residents and visitors alike are able to go about their lawful daily business without being harassed or witness to unseemly conflict."

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