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.

Anti-abortion activity is escalating

Anti-abortion activity is escalating

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.

Recent comments from women include:

" I had always heard of people protesting abortion clinics but never imagined that someone would use god and religion as a guise to confront me with judgement and intimidation." (bpas Richmond, 2014)

"I feel that they do not understand how hard it is to m ake this decision and their presence makes it so much harder." (bpas Oxford, 2014)

"There were graphic images of foetuses at the front of the building and what looked like a camera on a tripod which I found intimidating." (bpas Brighton, 2014)

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".

We now believe legislation to create safe spaces around clinics and advice centres free from activists would do much to minimise the distress these people cause women, and ensure healthcare staff can work in an environment free from intimidation.

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

"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.

"We cherish freedom of speech and regularly engage with those opposed to what we do. We have no desire to close debate down - but women arriving at clinics aren't coming for a debate. They are coming to access a confidential medical service, and should be left alone. We are a firmly pro-choice country, but for the small number of people who wish to campaign to restrict women's reproductive choices, there are plenty of opportunities and locations in which to do so. There are politicians willing to fight their cause in parliament. 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."

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