Rise in 'anti-abortion protests' in England and Wales

By Kate Forbes
BBC News


US-style anti-abortion protests outside clinics in England and Wales, are making some women feel intimidated and harassed, research seen by BBC News suggests.

Around half of the UK's abortion providers now have regular demonstrations outside, according to one of the main campaign groups.

The protesters, who sometimes hold placards with graphic imagery, say they are defending the unborn.

The displaying of these type of placards is what usually happens at the similar demonstrations in the US.

A debate between abortion providers, MPs and anti-abortion groups exists over "buffer zones" that would stop protests from being immediately outside clinics.

Dr Graeme Hayes, co-author of the research, said: "The voices of women (visiting the clinics) have been missing from the debate. For the first time we are bringing data that goes beyond anecdotal comment.

"We can't say it's representative of all women, but we now have not just one or two voices but more than 200."

'I'm being judged'

The research, funded by Aston University, cannot claim to represent the views of all women patients.

Responses ranged from reports of being made to cry or having a panic attack, to saying it made "a hard situation worse".

Eight women said they were followed and one reported an attempt to prevent her from getting to her car.

One woman said of an activist: "She was very aggressive and my daughter, who had been composed, cried."

Another said: "It made me scared to come in and I was physically shaking."

The responses from women who chose to comment about the protests as part of their general feedback about treatment were gathered by BPAS (the British Pregnancy Advisory service) and then analysed by the team at Aston University.

The report's co-author Dr Pam Lowe has spoken at BPAS events but does not work for them.

She said: "Women felt it was an invasion of healthcare privacy, shown by quotes like: 'I felt very angry as I am being judged by a stranger'."

Different tactics

No one group has been singled out by the research and not all groups who campaign against abortion are the same.

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce runs the Birmingham branch of the American 40 Days for Life campaign.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe subject of abortion arouses fierce debate both in Australia and the US

She says that her group offers advice such as: "We're outside the clinic to witness, not harass. We work within the law. We feel we offer a different path, in the spirit of love and I have recently had a young woman change her mind."

Ms Vaughan-Spruce added that she has also offered women support after their abortions.

The BBC asked staff at clinics across England how they were affected and received replies in writing.

One said: "I never used to have a problem walking past people demonstrating but things have changed. It now invades every moment of my working day.

"Passers-by were appalled by the protest and became involved. Four afternoons in one week the police were called (not by us) and had to ask people to disperse."

Graphic images

One group, Abort67, uses leaflets and graphic posters outside clinics.

In Southwark, a man sympathised but said the images were not suitable for public display.

He said: "If I was walking past with my seven-year-old son, I'd be angry."

Activist Aisling Hubert said the graphic pictures were necessary: "We want to educate people about what really happens during an abortion."

Abort67, which has links with US organisations, have protestors with small cameras on their chests, which film women entering the clinic, as well as passers-by.

"These are to record our behaviour and protect us from false accusations," explains spokesperson Ruth Rawlins.

The group condemns any form of violence or illegal activity.

Just over half of the 184,571 procedures in England and Wales per year are medical, rather than surgical, which means pills are taken to end the pregnancy. This means that treatment is in GP surgeries or smaller clinics, which are easily accessible to protestors.

While the methods used vary hugely, anti-abortion activists say their presence remains necessary to "protect the unborn child". The campaign group Good Counsel say they believe their protests, which they call vigils, work to change women's minds.

Dr Hayes said: "What is interesting is that it didn't seem to matter who was outside the clinic. It was just the presence that women found upsetting."

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