#BackOff- why women seeking a termination need a safe space

Watch the clip below which shows a pregnant woman taking umbrage with anti-abortion activists standing outside a BPAS clinic in London. The activists are filming women as they attend consultations, and they wear recording equipment around their necks. Initially they denied filming when she challenges them but watch their capitulation. The clip by  helpfully illustrates the need for the BPAS recent #BackOff campaign which seeks to protect women from harassment and filming by anti abortion groups on British streets.


Aside from taking a moment to marvel at her general awesomeness, we need to stop and think about some of the wider ramifications of allowing people to harass women in public spaces and whether the law should indeed be amended to make this either a criminal act or more easily dealt with through a civil claim.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service have recently launched a campaign to address this issue:

“The government is being urged to take action to protect women attending pregnancy advice and abortion centres amid an escalation in anti-abortion activity. The Back Off campaign calls for the establishment of zones free from anti-abortion activists in the area directly around registered clinics and pregnancy advice bureaux. 

“Women attending these centres are now regularly exposed to groups of anti-abortion activists standing immediately outside. Many of these people bear large banners of dismembered foetuses, strew pathways with plastic foetuses and graphic images, distribute leaflets containing misleading information about abortion, and follow and question women as they enter or leave. Often, these people carry cameras strapped to their chests or positioned on a tripod. Women report feeling intimidated and distressed by this activity as they try to access a lawful healthcare service in confidence.”

The frustration of BPAS with the current laws on harassment and public order is apparent:

“The police have made clear that the legal options to counter this activity are limited, and attempts to use the Public Order Act to curtail their activities have not been successful. Appeals to the churches who support these people to reflect on the impact on women have failed. We echo the recent comments of the judge in the case of harassment outside the Marie Stopes centre in Belfast, who made it clear that it was entirely inappropriate “for anyone to be stopped outside this clinic in any form, shape or fashion and questioned either to their identity, why they are going in there and being forced to involve themselves in conversation at times when they are almost certainly going to be stressed and very possibly distressed”.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, commented further:

“One in three women will have an abortion. These activists don’t stop women needing abortions, they simply make what is already a difficult day that much harder. Women should feel confident that they can approach centres for pregnancy advice and abortion care without fear of intimidation, or anxious that their identity will be compromised by protesters filming outside. Establishing zones free from anti-abortion activists around clinics would provide the reassurance and security women need. There is absolutely no need for the space outside clinics to become a battleground. Wherever one stands on abortion – pregnant women deserve better than this.”

Whenever I butt heads with people claiming to be ‘pro-life’ (or anti-abortion as I prefer to refer to them) what I find most astonishing is their belief that their right to demonstrate trumps a woman’s right to obtain medical and nursing care, unmolested and with dignity maintained. Any supposed concern for the sacred vessel of the pregnant female form does not extend to caring about the effects their intimidation might have upon her and her pregnancy. As far as they are concerned (and I draw my conclusions about it from their actions) her rights will always come second to their right to challenge her.

People should be able to express their views but what anti-abortionists are doing in this case does not constitute an appeal to politicans or even a show of hands. It is not intended as an entreaty to those that make the law. What it actually is attempting to do is frighten, humiliate and bully a pregnant woman into doing what the protestors want her to do. Women attending the clinics cannot feel assured that these strong-arm tactics with their undercurrent of aggression won’t erupt into outright hostility and they run the gauntlet of these protesters in the knowledge that medical staff at American clinics have been murdered by anti-abortion activists.

The protesters intend to make accessing health care (which may or may not include a termination) such a perceived and actual risk to a womans privacy and dignity that she would rather not do it. And if she does, the emotional and psychological damage from this harassment may be far greater than any residual effects of the termination. The threat of public exposure is NO basis upon which to make a decision to have a child or not. It is a particularly vicious form of blackmail that says: use a clinic that offers terminations and we will put the film of you walking up its steps online.

Research into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has shown a positive correlation between severity of symptoms and the perception of threat during the trigger event(s). PTSD has also been diagnosed in the people who work in these clinics because of the threatening conditions they work in. The development of mental health problems may thus occur in women who eventually decide against a termination after using the clinic, flying in the face of the apparent concern these protestors claim they have for women and their unborn foetuses.

The anti-abortion protesters claim that they are not harassing women ( according to our current laws), because each individual episode does not constitute the course of harassing action required for successful prosecution. They claim that the freedom of speech is an inalienable right. and it is, but only if that speech is not seen as harassing, threatening, intimidating and a deterrent to seeking lawful treatment- an abortion. These individual ‘actions’- all the separate women approached and harangued over the course of the day by anti abortionists- should be cumulatively aggregated so the offenders could be prosecuted through the courts.

As things stand now, should a woman decide to pursue a claim of intimidation against her, current legislation requires making a complaint to the police about each individual instance or episode by each individual harasser. So on top of the breach of privacy endured by a woman, further invasions of privacy is incurred through the necessary reporting and subsequent legal action. She will have to make a statement, identify those involved, engage legal representation, attend court, possibly be questioned and endure any media exposure that might result. And the activists know this.

Let me describe some of the harassment that women are exposed to as they try to access advice, support and possibly a termination through a clinic such as the ones run by the BPAS. These tactics also impact upon staff working there or in nearby clinical facilities:

  • Having leaflets and graphic images of dismembered foetuses thrust into their hands, pockets and bags. Or waved directly in their faces;
  • Pregnant staff require escorting into and out of the clinics by police, private security or other staff members;
  • Staff are verbally intimidated and harassed. They are identified to passers by in a pejorative manner;
  • Women are given incorrect information designed to frighten or trigger guilt;
  • Having bibles and religious tracts thrust into their faces;
  • Being screamed at, shouted at, asked intrusive loaded questions, asked about their pregnancies;
  • Having to find their path through a gauntlet of people all seeking to make it as hard as possible to find a way into the building.;
  • Being confronted with graphic large posters that line the street leading to the clinic, making it impossible for them to maintain a low profile;
  • Being filmed and recorded by cameras and video recording devices;
  • Having to fear the footage of their entrance to the clinic being put on a public viewing platform such as Youtube;
  • NHS staff on premises where a clinic is located have felt so intimidated by the protestors outside they have asked for the abortion service to be withdrawn from the facility where they work;
  • Losing their anonymity, something enshrined within NHS policy and the policy of private health care providers.

The anti-abortion protestors will again maintain that they operate within the law. Claiming that it is ‘legal’ and therefore permissible is a facile argument because the law is fluid and changes all the time. It used to be legal to send ten year old children to work in cotton mills but that does not mean that it was right and fair at that time. The rules and legal conventions of a society may be created in a post-hoc kind of way because, (as is often the case), they are preceded by the acts that make them necessary.  Amazingly enough, there is no definitive legislation that stops people filming members of the public as they use health-care (with or without their knowledge), even if it might be an offence to publish those images without their consent. Filming under these circumstances needs to be stopped and women (and the men who respect them) are demanding change as a direct result of their own lived experience.

Many of the British based anti abortion activists are supported by the even more virulent American organisations who have the right to free speech enshrined within the First Amendment, which has no literal legal equivalent in the UK. Unfortunately the protestors appear, at times, to conflate free speech with hate speech, and the latter is something the UK does legislate against. It is up to the law to clarify this in relation to what is said to women by protesters in the public spaces outside clinics. As it stands now, a woman can pursue individual claims of harassment under the Public Order Act but these would have to be multiple named claims (same as before) against each individual which (again) further reduces her right to privacy and anonymity. Anti-abortion organisations must not make the mistake of believing a lack of pursuance under harassment laws means that women do not feel harassed by them. Claiming that women aren’t that ‘bothered’ about their protests and using this as basis to justify their continuance is disingenuous. Women are not going to use an equally troublesome and archaic legal system that makes is near impossible to gain adequate sanctions. The same limitations apply to the clinics themselves. Each one has the option of taking out restraining orders against individuals or a group, but this is costly, time consuming and the protestors merely circumvent this by reorganising themselves under a new organisational name.

The right to protest is a legal right, enshrined in UK law by the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Convention on Human Rights recognises a right to peaceful assembly in its article 11. It also recognises a right to freedom of expression, allowing individuals to express their opinions. In the UK, by law an organiser of a demonstration must inform the local police of their intentions, six days prior to the event and the police have the right to make any changes to that demonstration that they deem necessary. However, anti abortion activists circumvent the law on protests by organising themselves as a gathering (legally called ‘an assembly’) in a single location and they do not move from this location. In addition, they organise multiple single gatherings at every clinic in a region that offers termination of pregnancy.

These protest assemblies are different from marches because the organisers do not have to notify the police but the police retain the right to impose conditions on an assembly, if they feel they are necessary to prevent serious public disorder from taking place, or if they feel that the purpose of the gathering is to intimidate others. As with the law on protests, the police have the right to amend the location of an assembly, limit the number of attendees and shorten the length of time any protest runs for. It is this part of legislation which could be made more appropriate for anti abortion protests outside clinics.

Adopting a ‘buffer-zone’ will not fully protect pregnant women from people seeking to impose their views upon them and it will not stop those people from demonstrating in the street or in the vicinity of the clinics. But what it will protect against is pregnant women having their actual personal space invaded: it will protect them from being filmed and photographed and the subsequent placing of the film online; from having literature pushed upon them; from having people questioning them at a distance of less than several feet, jostling and acting as a barrier between the woman and the care she seeks out. It may be feasible to enshrine new legislation in a similar fashion to that which exists for research facilities where animal experimentation takes place: clauses were included in the Serious Organised Crime Act and Police Act 2005. These did not ban all protests or free speech but provided a corridor of protection where women and employees could move in and out of the vicinity free from harassment and infringements of personal space. It also made it easier to protect their cars from attack from people placing incendiary or other devices underneath them, an act of issue- terrorism. (These attacks have also happened in other nations where abortion is illegal.)

It is an incontrovertible truth that the abortion rate remains pretty stable and similar whether abortion is protected by a countries laws or not. It is an incontrovertible truth that making abortion illegal correlates with a high maternal morbidity and mortality rate. Making abortion illegal will NOT result in more women choosing to give birth or hand over their newborns for adoption. Instead they will seek out an illegal abortion and they will seek it with the same determination, courage and strength that sees them successfully negotiating the threatening hordes of demonstrators outside clinics in order that they retain reproductive autonomy and body agency. What DOES reduce the rates of abortion is excellent and early access to education in contraception, in relationships, sexuality and autonomy alongside easy (and inexpensive) access to contraception. It is not a coincidence that many of the groups opposing lawful access to termination of pregnancy also oppose sex education in schools and the provision of contraception to teenagers.

What I find especially arrogant about the act of foisting anti abortion literature on women whilst they attend clinics is the presumption that the women actually need that information at that moment in time or are receptive to it. The act of gaining permission for a termination under British law involves plenty of opportunities to inform oneself as one goes through the legal and clinical protocols. Women talk of the hours of thought expended in coming to a decision to terminate their pregnancy or not to. Behind the anti abortion lobby lies a profoundly anti women rhetoric, built upon paternalistic ideas of women being undeserving of full agency; of displaced jealousy over their ability to conceive and gestate children; of needing male input and control of their decisions. This rhetoric is usually underpinned by a religious justification- religion being the ultimate in patriarchal systems. Women are NOT coming to these clinics to engage in a debate and if they had doubts in their mind then this is a conversation to be had, not in the street with a total stranger, but with trained professionals or  with family in a protected and confidential space.

One in three women will choose to have a termination of pregnancy and I feel a measure of quiet pride that I live in a country that is still supportive of that right. I also value the right to protest but this must NEVER take precedence over a woman’s right to obtain advice, support and the treatment of her choice in an anonymous, discreet and protected manner. The right to protest is not harmed by the womens right to not be protested at directly outside a medical facility. There are plenty of opportunities for those against abortion to make their feelings known, both online and in the larger world. We must not become a society where decisions are fueled by fear of exposure and approbation by those who do not have to stay and face the consequences of those decisions.

For more information and support, contact the British Pregnancy Advisory Service


Guardian newspaper infographic

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