Abortion buffer zone ‘victory’: the 10-year battle to protect the rights of women in London

 (Evening Standard comp)
(Evening Standard comp)

On a warm midsummer Saturday, they arrived with headsets and a megaphone. Through it they projected the words “don’t do it, you’ll regret it” while pushing empty prams up and down the street. “It” refers to having an abortion and their words reverberated so loudly staff and those at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) clinic in Finsbury Park who needed or wanted to terminate a pregnancy could hear them inside. And “they” are anti-choice, anti-abortion protesters who, in just two weeks in July, had set themselves up outside the clinic four times, leaving many patients traumatised, frightened and in tears.

Fortunately, this scene is hopefully to become a thing of the past, if this week’s vote is anything to go by. Last night, news came in that abortion providers, campaigners and hundreds of thousands of ordinary women had been praying for for over a decade: MPs have voted in favour of nationwide “buffer zones” — which prevent protesters from coming within 150 metres of an abortion clinic — in England and Wales. Offenders could now be hit with up to six months in prison for a first offence or as long as two years if they perpetrate additional crimes.

The move has been hailed a “huge victory” by abortion providers, who say they are “delighted” that politicians have voted to “protect women, protect healthcare staff, and establish buffer zones” — the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has campaigned “tirelessly” to have them implemented for nearly a decade. “Every year, around 100,000 women are treated by a clinic or hospital for an abortion that is targeted by anti-abortion protests,” BPAS chief executive Clare Murphy said this week following the news. “These groups attempt to deter or prevent women from accessing abortion care by displaying graphic images of foetuses, calling women ‘murderers’, and hanging baby clothing around clinic entrances, causing women significant distress. Today’s vote will bring an end to this activity.”

Hopefully, Murphy is right. Abortion clinics are as innocuous as they are discreet, resembling GP surgeries up and down the country. But recent years have seen protesters make them noticeably more conspicuous. Vikki Webb, the treatment unit manager at Finsbury Park clinic, says that until two years ago, her clinic had never been subjected to anti-abortion harassment. “Since the pandemic and particularly since the American decision to overturn Roe v Wade, the situation has 100 per cent got worse here,” she says. “Last Easter, there were around 30 or 40 protesters lined up outside the clinic and we had to have a police presence because of the numbers. We had more in December, January and Easter again this year, but since the US Supreme Court decision was decided [this summer] they’ve been here twice a week.”

“It’s upsetting for the women who use our services,” Webb told the Evening Standard after the Roe v Wade ruling was overturned. “They wait and watch for women to leave the clinic and then they walk really fast up to them with the empty pram. I saw them surround another woman’s car. I had women in tears last Saturday because of it. It makes me feel angry because it is almost like bullying and you never know what someone is going through when they have an abortion.” For instance, Webb tells me that one of the women who came to the clinic in July was a victim of sexual assault which is why she had chosen to terminate her pregnancy. “What gives them the right to upset people,” she asks.

Finsbury Park is not the only part of London where abortion clinics have been plagued by protesters over recent years. In Brixton, the Marie Stopes clinic has been experiencing similar problems. Michaela is the lead client co-ordinator there. Protesters have been seen praying, holding placards bearing graphic images of bloody foetuses, standing directly outside the clinic, giving leaflets full of misinformation to women and trying to hand out rosary beads. “We had 15 of them standing outside last time,” she said in July. “It has an effect on all of us but particularly on our clients who might be going through a vulnerable moment. I think it is a shock for people to see the protesters. I don’t think many people realise it still happens in this country.”

Anti-abortion protests have got worse sine Roe v Wade was overturned (AP)
Anti-abortion protests have got worse sine Roe v Wade was overturned (AP)

Michaela describes her role and that of her team when clients encounter protesters as “damage control”. She explains that they have to “work overdrive” to make people feel safe in the building and reassure them that protesters aren’t allowed in. One leaflet she shows me says “Believe in Yourself & Follow Your Heart: Please choose life for your baby!”. It contains the number of a “helpline” and encourages women to call it “even if” they’ve already taken abortion medication. The Marie Stopes team explain that this is highly concerning and potentially medically unsafe.

Abortion has been legal in Britain since the 1967 Abortion Act came into force, though it remains a criminal offence unless two doctors sign off on theprocedure and it is carried out in licensed premises. But London’s clinics have been plagued by protesters for years now, some of whom have funding links which can be traced to America’s “pro-life” movement. Both Marie Stopes and BPAS fear that the decision to overturn Roe v Wade, which legalised abortion in the US, was a trigger, emboldening the anti-abortion lobby in Britain since it came in in June.

Not all London clinics are as exposed as Brixton and Finsbury Park. In 2018, Ealing council became the first in the UK to implement a “buffer zone” around the MSI West London clinic. The move was hailed as a huge step forward for the protection of women seeking abortion services against a backdrop of abuse. In 2019, Richmond council granted a buffer zone for a BPAS clinic there.

Until this week’s ruling, councils had to open a public consultation process before they decide whether or not to set up a buffer zone locally - a lengthy and admin-heavy process, which is why women’s health experts had been hoping that Westminster would step in. Parliament’s legislation will implement fixed buffer zones around all clinics which provide abortion services in England and Wales, making it an offence to engage in prohibited behaviour (as defined by the legislation) within a specified area around all abortion clinics.

Marie Stopes staff say protesters now station themselves at the edge of the buffer zone so are still intimidating those seeking abortions

The argument against such legislation had been that it infringes on free speech and the right to demonstrate under the European Convention on Human Rights. However, experts have argued that challenges will likely be unsuccessful. In any case, calling these “protests” is part of the problem. Abortion is essential healthcare according to the World Health Organisation and it is legal in Britain — and even now that buffer zones will be put in place, they will only be able to do so much. Marie Stopes staff say protesters now station themselves at the edge of the Ealing buffer zone so they are still intimidating those seeking abortions as well as staff as they come and go, and harassment has got worse since the Roe v Wade decision was announced in June.

Indeed, the impact of encountering anti-abortion views on the way to or from an appointment cannot be underestimated. In 2018, 34-year-old Susan (who asked for her real name not to be used) was accosted by protesters as she left the Richmond BPAS clinic. “I was absolutely horrified to be confronted by these really churchy looking women who held banners and posters showing graphic images of bloody unborn foetuses,” she says. “They were also trying to hand out leaflets full of misinformation about abortion, for instance saying it causes cancer, to people going in and out of the clinic. They kept saying ‘don’t do this, God loves you’, and they were holding rosaries. And I just kept thinking this could be Texas, not London.”

Four years later, Susan is still affected. “I feel furious,” she says. “How dare anyone come up to us in a moment of vulnerability and encroach on our privacy like that? I keep thinking about some of the younger girls in the clinic that day, what must it have been like for them.”

How dare anyone come up to us in a moment of vulnerability and encroach on our privacy like that?

Despite the relative success of buffer zones in Ealing and Richmond, it’s been a long road to get here — in part because abortion is an issue of conscience in Parliament, meaning MPs vote according to their beliefs. In 2018, the Home Office decided not to implement them nationally, with then-home secretary Sajid Javid saying he did not think they were “an appropriate response” as the protesters were “passive by nature”. Four years later, after the US decision this June, Tory MP Danny Kruger said that he does not believe women have “an absolute right to bodily autonomy”. When Labour’s Stella Creasy called on Parliament to enshrine the right to abortion as a human right, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab reminded her that it is “an issue of conscience” and said he could see “no strong case for change”.

Mayor Sadiq Khan has been among those supporting Creasy in fighting for women’s rights, telling the Standard in July: “I have pushed for a buffer zone to be created in Ealing and will continue to work with partners to ensure women are free from harassment across London. The Government needs to do more to protect vulnerable women attending clinics and make it much easier for buffer zones to be introduced where they are needed.”

Thankfully, that wish by Khan’s and hundreds of thousands of women across the country — has finally been granted. “For decades, our teams around the country have been forced to witness the cruel tactics of anti-abortion groups who have had a free pass to harass people attending our clinics, invade their space and attempt to block their right to healthcare,” says Louise McCudden of MSI Reproductive Choices’ UK.

Now, thanks to yesterday’s “landmark decision”, “at long last”, all women will “have the right to access vital reproductive healthcare with safety, dignity, and privacy, no matter where in the country they happen to live”. No more stigma, no more guilt. Peace, hopefully, at long last.

Vicky Spratt is a writer at Refinery29 UK which has been campaigning for the decriminalisation of abortion since 2019