100 years ago, we gave some women the right to choose who represents them in Government. Society’s journey towards gender equality has progressed since, but it is far from completion. One of the most important challenges facing gender equality is how we uphold the rights of women who choose to have an abortion, without being subject to harassment.
Women who attend clinics for abortion treatment have become a target for anti-abortion groups who aim to harass them during what would likely be one of the most difficult decisions of their lives. Deciding to have an abortion does not come lightly, as a woman would need to gain a doctor’s referral before being able to go ahead with the treatment, then have to endure an agonising two week long wait to be seen for the treatment.
Unfortunately, women who use abortion centres are becoming regularly exposed to anti-abortion activists standing outside the clinic, often kneeling in prayer or showing extremely graphic images to the women. This understandably causes a large of amount of emotional distress, on top of the initial stress caused by making the decision to go ahead with an abortion. Not only are women shown these images, they are also followed and verbally questioned by protesters on their way in and out of leaving centres around the country.
One woman, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Back Off campaign that the protesters at a Leeds clinic “left a poor girl in tears after speaking to her. I told them it was none of their business. This is extremely upsetting for everyone after having to make such a difficult decision”.
It is surreal to think that a society that has recently celebrated giving some women the vote 100 years ago, still allows a group of people to harass women so openly. However, this abuse is not only directed towards users of the clinic, it is also directed towards staff. It is a disgrace that our NHS and other healthcare professionals receive any form of abuse, with some workers reportedly having to be escorted into their workplace by police. Women and staff working at abortion clinics, such as Marie Stopes, are acting within the parameters of the law, which states very clearly that one can choose to have a pregnancy terminated before 24 weeks.
The solution must come in the form of governmental legislation, in order to prevent this obstruction of women’s freedoms and right to free healthcare. The Back Off campaign is doing excellent work on this issue, and is calling for legislation to establish ‘access zones’ around registered pregnancy advisory bureaux and clinics, in which anti-abortion activity cannot take place. This would stop activity taking place directly outside centres, ensure women are not approached unsolicited, and prevent other activities designed to cause distress.
It is quite clear that this legislation can be achieved while still upholding the rights of anti-abortion campaigners, who often claim the establishment of ‘access zones’ would encroach upon their freedom of speech and right to protest. However, that is not the case as protestors are not only causing women an extreme amount of stress, they are unlawfully interfering with women during a lawful medical service in confidence.
It must be kept in mind that having an abortion is a personal decision that many women make, as NHS figures suggest 1 in 3 women will have an abortion during their lifetime. Anybody that seeks to actively deter the rights of these women to seek medical treatment must face the full extent of the law, under existing harassment laws. However, the issue of harassment outside abortion clinics is gathering pace and must be legislated against before more women are caused an unforgivable amount of distress.
Local councils should now act to open their own consultations on experiences of anti-abortion activists, particularly outside clinics. If you have any experiences of harassment from groups and individuals involved, the Back Off campaign would welcome your stories for their database. Experiences can be submitted at www.back-off.org/share-your-experience.