On a quiet back road near my home in north London there's an innocuous looking low-rise building that's occasionally surrounded by people waving pictures of foetuses.
This health clinic is one of the targets in a new wave of protests against women's reproductive rights that's inspired by American organisations and involves groups like Abort67 and 40 Days for Life marching through cities, training people in anti reproductive freedom and demonstrating outside health centres.
I've often wondered how women feel when they go to a clinic for information on abortion, or to access the medical procedure, and have to walk past people holding placards, filming, or questioning them about their private medical decisions. A report just published by the University of Aston looks at just that, and I think makes the case for banning protests outside clinics pretty hard to argue with.
Over 200 women, who - like the ones who have used the centre near my house - had to walk past protestors on their way into a clinic, filled in comment forms about their experience. Responses were analysed by independent researcher and some of the findings are surprising, some less so.
A few of the incidents reported were shocking - eight women were followed, and one reported being assaulted. One respondent said a woman in her 50s followed her from the clinic to a nearby shop and spoke to her loudly about abortion in front of other people, "I just had my treatment done that day and I was already emotional and it feels she was embarrassing me in front of strangers on the street and intimidating me."
One tactic some of the women experienced and found particularly unnerving was being filmed as they walked into a clinic. This practice is the subject of controversy, and is related to the concept of 'bearing witness' that many protest groups use to justify their presence. The study found that every single woman who was filmed felt it was intrusive. Some protestors have claimed that the filming is for their own protection, which may well be true but the problem articulated in the report is that it's the fact that women don't know how the film will be used that is frightening. As one woman put it, "this is a difficult situation as it is without having to worry about the whole of my family knowing what I'm doing and causing them and me more distress." Another said "I did feel harassed and violated as I was being filmed against my will."
Perhaps the most important finding of the report is that women are significantly distressed simply by the presence of the protestors. The protestors do not need to follow or film; even when their behaviour was completely peaceful and polite, just by being there they were drawing attention to the decision the women had made, which women felt contradicted normal practice around medical health and privacy, and was perceived as a direct challenge to their decision to access an abortion.
One of the authors of the study, Dr Lowe, a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University, said that many commenters were conscious of the right of activists to express their views, but believed these rights ought to be balanced with the intimidating nature of their presence outside clinics. She said that "presence rather than conduct [is] the key factor for them. Even when perfectly lawful, the presence of anti-abortion activists can still cause alarm and distress."
The obvious answer to this problem is, of course, banning protestors from standing directly outside clinics, but despite significant support, so far the idea doesn't seem to have got very far. In November last year the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) launched 'Back off', a campaign calling for protest free zones, sometimes called buffer zones or exclusion zones, outside abortion clinics and pregnancy advice centres. Caroline Lucas has raised the issue in Parliament, in March this year a petition calling for buffer zones was backed by various organisations including the Royal College of Midwives and Mumsnet and signed by 118,000 people, and in August this year Yvette Cooper announced her support for buffer zones.
The argument against buffer zones relies heavily on freedom of speech - which of course is not a simple concept to counter - but if we now know that just by being present the protestors are causing such distress, is that argument good enough?