Anti-abortion protesters at a clinic in central London have been joined by children holding placards bearing the slogan “save babies”.
Shanaaz Mohammed, a nurse at Marie Stopes’ central London clinic in Fitzrovia told HuffPost UK: “I think they’re trying to use different tactics in trying to destabilise women emotionally.”
Mohammed said that several children, who she believed were under the age of 12, had joined protesters outside the clinic on a number of occasions over the last week.
“I think it’s deplorable that children are involved in this – why aren’t they in school?” she continued. “I don’t think they have the maturity to understand the situation that these women are coming to us for.”
Mohammed said that protesters also stood near the entrance of the clinic with babies in prams. “They’re using them as props to try and guilt trip the clients from seeking our services,” she added.
The demonstration is one of several daily “prayer vigils” currently happening at entrances to abortion providers across the UK, organised by American anti-abortion campaign, 40 Days for Life.
The campaign, which is taking place globally from 6 March - 14 April, describes itself as “a groundbreaking, coordinated international mobilization” and will bus volunteers from across the country to gather at the entrances of abortion clinics.
Protesters with 40 Days for Life have been gathering outside Marie Stopes’ Fitzrovia clinic for a decade. In an email newsletter sent to subscribers last week, the campaign’s Director of International Campaigns Robert Colquhoun claimed “hundreds of babies have been saved” outside the Bloomsbury clinic as a result of demonstrations.
“Though one passerby shouted, ‘Respect a woman’s choice!’ it’s clear the campaign in the capital of the United Kingdom is making an impact,” the email continued.
A spokesperson for 40 Days for Life’s London branch told HuffPost UK, “We are there to offer help and to pray.” She described the demonstration as “respectful and polite”, and said that attendees range from young families to older people.
Protesters are regularly accused of intimidating clinic staff and users during the demonstrations, and Camden council confirmed to HuffPost UK that they have received several complaints from local residents.
Mohammed said that protesters will approach people entering the clinic and hand them rosary beads and anti-abortion leaflets.
“One of the protesters will position herself near the entrance,” she continued. “It’s very uncomfortable for the clients because they have to buzz in and stand by the door with the protester in such close proximity while they wait.
“They’re an arm away, it’s too close for comfort even for me and other members of staff sometimes.”
We’ve had to call the police twice in the last week alone because it’s been so badBeth Redmond
Women who entered often find the demonstrations distressing, according to Mohammed.
“Accessing our service is not just a legal right, it’s a fundamental human right,” she added. “These women have a right to choose, so they really shouldn’t be subjected to these kinds of interference.”
In Manchester, the local 40 Days for Life group has also been especially active. “We’ve had to call the police twice in the last week alone because it’s been so bad,” Beth Redmond, who runs pro-choice counter protests at the clinic told HuffPost UK.
Last year a Home Office inquiry looked into protests outside abortion clinics with the view of potentially legislating for “buffer zones” at clinics nationwide. But while the inquiry found “upsetting examples of harassment and the damaging impact this behaviour has had on individuals,” Home Secretary Sajid Javid concluded that national legislation would not be a “proportionate response” to the issue, and deferred to local councils to take measures on a clinic-by-clinic basis.
So far only two councils in the UK – both in London – have implemented a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) outside an abortion clinic. Staff at Marie Stopes in Ealing, the first council to grant a buffer zone, say it has transformed the experience of both patients and staff.
In March, Richmond council also implemented a PSPO outside a clinic run by abortion providers, BPAS following years of dispute between local residents and protesters.
Councillors in Manchester have been consulting on the possibility of a PSPO outside the Marie Stopes targeted by protesters for over a year, and are believed to be close to coming to a decision.
Camden council, which is responsible for the area surrounding Marie Stopes in Bloomsbury, have explored measures to curb protests outside the clinic, but so far concluded they would not be necessary.
Anna Veglio-White, founder of the campaign group Sister Supporter, which led the original campaign for a PSPO in Ealing, accused Javid of “horrific misjudgement” for not acting to tackle the issue nationally.
“The law is supposed to protect people, and councils can do something about this but a PSPO is only temporary so it’s more of a plaster than an actual solution,” Veglio-White told HuffPost UK.
“One council will do it, and then the protesters will move along to another clinic,” she continued.
“It just becomes this constant cat and mouse chase when there is clearly a need for a national solution.”