I want to share with you what it’s like to work in an abortion clinic where there are daily protests outside – and the impact it has on all of us, on staff, patients, and their families.
I am proud of where I work, and I never used to have a problem walking past people demonstrating. But recently things have changed, and I’ve come to dread the protesters which descend on my clinic every working day.
We’ve always had a presence in Cardiff, but since 2014, the tactics have completely changed and now we’re forced to endure a totally different variety of protesters. Many belong to a group founded in Texas and known as 40 Days for Life. When they started, this group stood immediately outside the entrance to the clinic.
The women who enter our clinic have to press a buzzer to gain entry and, in those moments where they wait to enter, are basically captive to whatever the group wants to say to them. More recently, the police have moved the protesters – mostly older men – away from the entrance to just across the road, but this doesn’t stop women and staff encountering them on the street.
From the beginning, passers-by have been appalled by the protest, becoming involved and shouting. On four afternoons in one week, police were called (not by us) to disperse the public. Some protesters were even hauled into a police van as scuffles broke out between protesters and passing students who tried to remove their offensive banners.
“Years ago, protesters used to tell me they 'were praying for me', and I could cope with that. Now? They call me out by name.”
I have had patients who choose to change their appointment for a time outside ’40 Days’ when the protesters aren’t outside.
I have had patients literally fear for their lives after being recorded by protesters because their cultural background meant they would face devastating consequences if their families found out they were pregnant.
I have had grandparents weeping because they don’t want their grandchild to go through any more trauma than the ordeal is already causing them.
I have had mums who were there to support their daughters who, after treatment, refused to leave the clinic until protesters had left.
I have had to arrive early to work because some doctors will only work if I let them in through the fire escape. At lunchtime I have to take everyone’s lunch orders because staff don’t want to walk through the protesters any more than they have to.
Years ago, protesters used to tell me they “were praying for me”, and I could cope with that. Now? They call me out by name, and shout at me: “Vivienne, do you have children yourself? Vivienne, how do you sleep at night? What do your children think?”
It is appalling that I can be harassed in this way simply for trying to help women – women who come to us for many different reasons, but none who do so lightly. For many, it is already the most difficult day, they already feel that they’ve done something wrong to end up with us – and that’s made even worse by people outside judging them. One day I was even brought to tears and questioned whether I really wanted to stay working here.
“Women’s healthcare and women’s experiences just aren’t a priority – what are a few hundred women being subjected to harassment for a medical decision compared to knife crime or drug use?”
On this particular day, it was a Tuesday and we had a full surgical abortion list. Mid-morning, a fire alarm went off from the restaurant below and we were forced to evacuate. We had ladies in gowns having to go out onto the street and come face-to-face with the protesters. We had nurses in uniform being tormented by the protesters. We had one woman and her family who adamantly refused to leave the building.
Every year we become more and more used to it – nothing has happened to change it and the distress and fear inflicted on my staff and our patients seems to just get swept under the carpet. I’ve spent a year trying to sit down with the council to see if we can get a buffer zone in place – an area around the clinic where these people are not allowed to protest – but the meeting keeps getting delayed and delayed. I think the problem for many of us is that women’s healthcare and women’s experiences just aren’t a priority – what are a few hundred women being subjected to harassment for a medical decision compared to knife crime or drug use? I know there’s only so many hours in a day, only so much money in the pot – but eventually there has to be a point where we say ‘enough’.
Local pro-choice groups have offered to come and support women but no matter the intention, more people outside the clinic only means more distress for women accessing our services. Anti-abortion groups put our patients so much on edge we know that when they see banners, see gatherings of people, they will keep their heads down and dash into the clinic.
Meanwhile the government claims that because the protesters aren’t physically harming women, they’re ‘passive’ and we don’t need the law to change.
Me, my staff, and our patients are living proof that we do.
Vivienne Rose is treatment unit manager at bpas Cardiff
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