Thea Griggs found out she was pregnant the day before her 21st birthday, in 2018. In the days that followed, she was unsure of what to do. She had just left a difficult relationship and did not have the financial means to raise a child. Eventually, she decided to get an abortion.
She booked an appointment with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) in Bournemouth and was told of the different options before deciding to go ahead with the abortion. She was told she would be given one tablet, followed by a second a day or two later. After taking the first pill, she left the clinic and, to her shock, was met by six protesters. A woman approached her and handed her a leaflet. She ignored her and walked past. The group continued loudly praying. Some began to shout.
“It was really intimidating. You’re in a really vulnerable situation and you have all these people shouting at you and saying you’re going to hell,” Griggs says. That night she struggled to go to sleep and wondered if she was a horrible person.
Griggs is now one of many Bournemouth residents demanding that the council implement a protest buffer zone around the clinic so that other women do not have the same experience. “I spent a really long time thinking I made this awful decision and that I made a massive mistake, but at the end of the day abortion is healthcare. You wouldn’t stand outside a hospital and do this to any other patient seeking treatment,” she says.
Amid considerable local pressure, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council launched a consultation on the issue, which closes at the end of this month. If implemented, the council would follow in the footsteps of Ealing council, which implemented a buffer zone around a clinic in 2018.
Caroline Brooks, a support services coordinator at BPAS Bournemouth, says there have been hundreds of cases like Griggs’s. She has worked in the clinic for more than 25 years and says that while there have always been protests, she believes they have become more hostile.
“They’ve got more vocal, they’ve got more aggressive in their approach, and I think in some ways they’ve become far more rigid about their views and making sure that they impose those views on our people,” Brooks says.
The clinic is situated in a residential cul-de-sac, a 10-minute walk from the station. A window of the building has had to be fitted with a special film so that protesters cannot peer in.
Brooks and her colleague Adele Warton, a client care manager, point to the nine red folders of testimonies they have been collecting since 2016 on the impact of the protests. Women have complained of being followed into the clinic or accosted when they leave. They have complained of being told “the baby loves them” or asked whether they know they “murder babies” inside the building. Protesters have stood in front of people’s cars. In one complaint, a client says: “When we walked past she said your baby wants to live. We drove for seven and half hours and did not expect this at all.”
Staff have also filled in a number of complaint forms over the years. One worker says she has witnessed “many distressed clients”, including one who injured herself trying to climb a wall to avoid walking past the protesters. Another wrote that protesters have followed her to her car shouting “murderers”. In one of the most serious incidents, an individual dressed in a monk’s cassock followed a staff member along the street in the dark while recording her.
The protesters are made up of a mixture of groups, but the regulars include 40 Days for Life, a religious anti-abortion global campaign that has its origins in the US, as well as members of local church groups. Some have brought plastic foetus models, pushed leaflets through car doors, called women and their escorts “mummy” and “daddy”, and hung baby clothes on a hedge.
Warton fears the decision in the US supreme court to strike down Roe v Wade would embolden protesters.
She says: “One of the crucial messages that I would have to give very distraught people who are sat in the waiting room is ‘I’m really sorry, but I can’t do anything about it. I can’t go out there and move them away. I can’t change this situation.’”
It’s for this reason that the campaign group Sister Supporters have stepped in. Set up in 2015, the group has teamed up with other local organisations across the UK, providing support for targeted clinics such as Bournemouth. The group has mobilised thousands to sign a petition calling for a buffer zone, and is now calling on people to respond to the consultation.
Jess Bone, a volunteer for Sister Support Bournemouth, says: “They [the protesters] always say that they come with compassion and love. They’re coming with an alternative option. Generally, you’ve assessed the alternative option, which is birth, and having a child, and you’ve decided I don’t want to have that or maybe the pregnancy isn’t viable, so you’re going to abortion.
“It’s that implied lack of trust that women know what they want. Even if you’re praying quietly and unobtrusively, women who go into the clinic know that they’re being judged.”
Robert Colquhoun, the director of international campaigns at 40 Days for Life, argues buffer zones are a draconian overreach of power. “Many women are actually helped by pro-life outreach every year and this health advice is offered outside the abortion centre because it’s the place of need,” he says.
Speaking about the allegations of harassment, he adds: “We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of accusations against us and many of those accusations have not been true over time.” He goes on to claim the group has “helped several women in Bournemouth who were scheduled for an abortion and chose not to go ahead with the abortion from that very centre”.
Speaking from her office, which gives a view of the protesters, Brooks says much of her job is now taken up with avoiding protesters and gathering evidence.
“I really shouldn’t have to do this to go to and from work,” she says. “We’ve reached the point now it’s just gone on too long. It should be stopping, not increasing.”