Anti-Abortion Protesters 'Breaking Social-Distancing Rules' As 40-Day Vigils Begin

"If they’re so concerned with preserving life, why are they then taking part in a non-socially distanced activity?"
40 Days for Life protesters, pictured here in 2019.
40 Days for Life protesters, pictured here in 2019.
Dr Pam Lowe

Anti-abortion campaigners have begun 40-day round-the-clock “vigils” outside a dozen UK clinics, despite increasingly restrictive Covid-19 rules.

According to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), staff at facilities in London, Birmingham and Swindon already had been forced to call the police to report groups for breaking social distancing rules throughout the summer.

Campaigners associated with the US group 40 Days for Life also assembled outside nine other clinics on Wednesday – their second 40-day protest in 2020 after staging vigils over Lent.

On Tuesday – the second day of protests – police were called to BPAS clinics in Birmingham and Merseyside.

The service told HuffPost UK that a client’s partner became involved in a “heated debate” with campaigners on the way into a Birmingham clinic, while in Merseyside a protester breached a long-standing agreement that meant activists stood on the opposite side of the road. A protester stood directly at the gate of the clinic and refused to move, leaving the clinic staff with no option but to call the police.

“It does raise questions around if they’re so concerned with preserving life, why are they then taking part in a non-socially distanced activity at a time when we all shouldn’t necessarily be meeting up with strangers as much as possible?” said Dr Pam Lowe, a senior lecturer in sociology at Aston University and researcher on anti-abortion activism at clinics.

40 Days for Life protesters, pictured here in Nottingham in 2018.
40 Days for Life protesters, pictured here in Nottingham in 2018.
Dr Pam Lowe

Rachael Clarke, public affairs and advocacy manager at BPAS, explained that during the summer clinics had been forced to call the police to move protesters away from the gates of facilities in south Birmingham and Swindon in order to ensure patients could remain socially distanced as they arrived for appointments.

She said staff were reluctant to call the police every time campaigners infringed the rules, but noted that some clinics had seen groups gathered outside that were not observing social distancing. Clarke added: “This activity since [the start of] lockdown has been distressing for clients who see people with seemingly no respect for the guidelines to prevent transmission, who then attempt to hand them leaflets.”

Remote access to abortion medication was offered in February to help meet the challenges associated with Covid-19, but BPAS estimates that around half of women ending a pregnancy still have to attend a clinic at some point during their treatment.

These women are disproportionately likely to be classed as vulnerable, and include younger women where safeguarding concerns may be involved, women at later gestations – including those who may be ending a much-wanted pregnancy due to a diagnosis of foetal anomaly – and women attending in the wake of a miscarriage.

The process of arriving to a clinic, potentially having to pass protesters along the way, can be even more daunting for women during Covid-19, explained Shelley Doherty, a front of house assistant for the Marie Stopes clinic in Manchester.

She said: “I’m really concerned because at the moment, because of Covid, nobody is coming into the clinic aside from the clients themselves.

“Prior to the pandemic people would often come in with somebody. Although that person wouldn’t follow them through having the treatment they would be able to sit in a dedicated waiting area, but now they have to sit in their cars or go home and come back to pick them up later.

“The treatments can go on for any sort of time really – we have ladies that come in before 8am and won’t go home until 3pm. If the person who’s brought them has come from far away they are going to be sat in the car all day and having to look at the protesters. I fear that might lead to people antagonising each other in some kind of way.”

Meanwhile BPAS are allowing clients to be accompanied in cases where there is enough space for social distancing inside the clinics. Clarke said there had been report issues outside the south Birmingham clinic on Thursday due to the growing group of protesters engaging with people accompanying clients.

Doherty explained that no protesters had arrived outside the Manchester clinic as of Wednesday afternoon, but said staff were prepared for the vigils to start in the coming days. She explained that she had met with city council officials who had informed her that the 40 Days for Life campaigners had said they would remain socially distanced, but had heard of other clinics already witnessing groups forming.

As the first point of contact for many clients entering the Manchester clinic, Doherty has spent more than four years witnessing the harm protesters can do and is passionate about a change in the law to introduce buffer zones around clinics.

She said: “When I first came here I was absolutely horrified by all these people stood there with banners. I couldn’t believe it, it’s something you hear about but couldn’t believe I was seeing it with my own eyes.

“I sit and look out the window at them doing what they’re doing and I see the effect that it’s having on these poor ladies and our staff.

“It’s not very nice coming into work, where we’re trying to help women access healthcare, and have to face them waiting outside. It’s very frustrating and upsetting.

Protesters outside a central London clinic in March 2019.
Protesters outside a central London clinic in March 2019.
Marie Stopes

“You have to have a strong stomach, in a way, to do the work I’m doing. I would never say: ‘Oh they’re just a protester’, because you’re aware of the impact on every single woman coming through the door.”

In September 2018, then-Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, declined to introduce new laws that could have addressed issues raised by women and healthcare providers following a Home Office review of anti-abortion clinics.

BPAS have said that 42 hospitals and clinics – which collectively treat more than 100,000 women a year – have since witnessed anti-abortion activism. Only two places, Ealing and Richmond, now have a buffer zone in place after being introduced by their respective councils.

In June, Rupa Huq, MP for Ealing Central, tabled a cross-party bill to establish buffer zones across the country. MPs voted 213-47 in favour of the bill, which is due to receive its second reading on Friday.

Protests and vigils have become an increasing issue over the past few years. Groups of activists often move around between locations and do not have a set structure – instead relying on the attendance of volunteers who often arrive on an ad hoc basis.

Dr Lowe explained that groups like 40 Days for Life, which operate a model similar to a franchising business, are difficult to pin down due to their decentralised model. The character of each group can hard to predict, making it almost impossible for clinics and their patients to know what to expect, and difficult to identify a pattern of behaviour.

At protests in Spring 2020, activists held posters, tried to hand out leaflets and left baby clothes near the entrances of clinics.

Clarke said: “Anti-abortion groups stand outside clinics not to change the law but to pressure and harass individual women who are trying to access the healthcare they’re guaranteed under the law.

“These women deserve to access this care without being followed, lied to, and frightened by groups of people who place their own beliefs above compassion and care for women in the most difficult of circumstances.”

But working with a team of researchers at Aston University, analysing 30 different sites, Dr Lowe found that even the mere presence of protesters such as 40 Days for Life was enough to intimidate women trying to access clinics – regardless of how aggressive their tactics are.

She said: “What we’ve shown with our research is that they [protesters] don’t necessarily have to do very much for it to be intimidating, they just have to be there.

“The reason that their presence is a problem is particularly due to the way in which public space is gendered. We live in a world where women have to be much more wary about strangers in public places and we raise girls to be much more wary.

“It’s not surprising that if you are approaching an abortion clinic and see a bunch of strangers watching you and you don’t know what their intentions are then that is going to cause distress in and of itself.

“It’s important not to focus on what they’re actually doing, which is what the Home Office did in their last review. They said ‘well they’re not really doing much’, but we would argue that being there in and of itself is actually causing the distress.”

Richard Bentley, managing director of Marie Stopes UK said: “During the pandemic, our team members have been working round the clock to keep services open for everyone who needs them and it is disgraceful that this is being undermined by radical minority groups determined to deny women the legal healthcare they need.

“These groups are always a concern for our teams, who witness the cruel tactics they use to turn women away from clinics, and during a global pandemic their behaviour is quite simply putting lives at risk. Women are subjected to graphic imagery, told they are going to hell and handed plastic foetuses and insidious leaflets that address them as ‘Mum’.

“These groups should not have a free pass to harass women they don’t know, invade their space and block their right to healthcare. While we respect and support the right to free speech, we are adamant that protests should never be at the expense of a woman’s right to legal health services.”

HuffPost UK has approached 40 Days for Life for comment.


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