“Mum, Mum, take a leaflet, you can still help your baby.” These words, and many variations of, were said to me every time I tried to walk down the path to the Marie Stopes Centre in Ealing, West London.
The anti-choice protestors didn’t know I worked for Marie Stopes UK, but as a woman of reproductive age I was approached relentlessly, and unsolicited. The figures that stood poised by the gates, thrusting pink or blue leaflets and rosary beads at me while the word “Mum” rang in my ears always made me feel harassed and nervous to pass them, no matter how few were there.
Women entering the Centre in Ealing have been experiencing this harassment for more than two decades, and yet their experiences were falling through the gaps in current harassment law. Our teams in the Centre resorted to keeping an informal log book where clients could write their experiences.
One woman wrote in the book: “I attended the clinic today for an abortion. The man and lady outside made me feel very uncomfortable. He kept trying to speak to me (at least 7 times) despite me telling him to leave me otherwise I would call the police. I feel that they should not be allowed to approach vulnerable women or even young girls who are going through a rough time.”
I have lived in Ealing for three years, and so have also had to pass these groups as a local resident taking a walk by the park on a Saturday. People walking past have encountered graphic images, intimidating crowds, or upset clients. Local grass-roots campaigners Sister Supporter, and the national Back Off campaign, gathered many testimonies from members of the public that feel forced to encounter these groups while attempting to enjoy their local community.
Thankfully, Ealing Council has taken action against the harassment and intimidation of women visiting the Marie Stopes Centre. The Council considered many different ways to combat this issue and made the landmark decision to explore a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) – the first in the country that would prohibit this type of behaviour outside of an abortion clinic.
Following a public consultation, where local residents and those who work in the area were invited to give their opinion on the planned 100 meter “Safe Zone” around the Centre, Ealing Council has now voted unanimously to implement the PSPO. It doesn’t feel like an overstatement to say that this is truly a historic moment.
The reality is, this isn’t about restricting protest, or free speech. The anti-choice groups want to try to stop women, all women, from entering the clinic, attempting to block them from accessing legal reproductive healthcare. We respect these groups’ right to disagree with abortion, but we do not believe that this gives anyone the right to harass women who would like to explore that choice for themselves.
There are so many benefits of a “Safe Zone” outside of our West London Centre. Women and pregnant people can now access the legal healthcare service without fear of being confronted, without harassment, without feeling intimidated, and without being given factually inaccurate, unregulated information about abortion. In short, they will not have to face emotional manipulation aimed at denying them an informed choice about their healthcare.
For the local police services, it will give them clear, activity specific guidelines on how they can use their powers to protect our clients, the public, and our teams from facing this type of harassing behaviour. Our teams will be able to come to work with the knowledge that if protestors do gather to harass, intimidate and verbally assault them, there are clear police powers that can be called upon.
Everyone entering an abortion clinic should be allowed the privacy, confidentiality, and harassment-free environment of any other healthcare service. Other councils across the country are looking into what action they can take on this issue, and we’re hoping that Ealing have now set the precedent that “Safe Zones” can, and should be rolled out nationally.
Franki Appleton is a communications and advocacy adviser at Marie Stopes UK