Following the report of the closure of an abortion clinic in the Times on 21 July Abortion Rights issued an open letter to the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt urging him to take responsibility for the provision of women's health services.
Abortion Rights' intention with the open letter is to take the pressure away from clinics and put it where it belongs - with the government, to investigate the harassment by anti-abortion protestors and to ensure there is full unrestricted provision for women to access safe, legal abortions without fear of shame or intimidation.
As chair of Abortion Rights, I note that there are several solutions proposed for dealing with the protestors, following international models such as in the US and France where they have also seen anti-abortion protests near to clinics.
Abortion Rights has seen an increase in reports from the general public of anti-choice activity outside abortion clinics and health facilities that provide abortions. Women and staff have increasingly been facing harassment by anti-choice activists who have been intimidating staff and patients by using various tactics. For example: filming service users and staff going in and out of the facilities; using large, graphic and exaggerated images of 'aborted foetuses'; invading personal space by blocking peoples' paths, and grabbing and touching them; and handing out medically inaccurate and misleading leaflets. This creates an atmosphere of intimidation and disrespects and disregards women's personal medical choices and medical staff's right to work free from harassment.
I am clear that this intimidation needs to stop. We are calling for all parties - the government, local authorities, police and local MPs to do all they can within existing powers to intervene and ensure women are able to access their legal right for information and abortion.
Abortion Rights prefers not to limit itself to only one solution. We are interested now in stopping these anti-choice, anti-women protests. Our activists have been involved in several ways to put pressure on those in power and support those affected, to stop clinic harassment, prevent closures and ensure women accessing services are supported.
In 2012, almost 1,000 pro-choice supporters stood outside the clinic targeted by 40 Days for Life in Bedford Square, in solidarity with women who want to access services. They went on to see from the pro-choice group Bloomsbury Pro-Choice Alliance how to counter the actions of anti-choice activists and many of these new activists are now on the Abortion Rights Executive Committee.
In 2013, Abortion Rights campaigners also gathered to run street stalls and hand out leaflets to explain why they were supporting the clinic staff in Cardiff that was being targeted by 40 Days for Life. In 2014 they celebrated the end of the protestors gathering to pray outside the clinic and now only see occasional anti-choice activists that they recognise who don't stay long.
In 2014, Abortion Rights launched an online petition against Abort67 to take a stand against anti-abortion bullies, harassing women and doctors at Blackfriars Medical Practice. We gathered almost 4,000 signatures and encouraged our supporters to tweet Simon Hughes - MP for the area at the time.
And in 2015 Abortion Rights organised a successful counter demonstration to 'March for Life' in Birmingham city centre to show that limiting women's choice to control their body is not supported by a pro-choice majority in Britain and to highlight that one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime.
Abortion Rights is clear that we don't want to cause extra drama outside clinics for staff or those accessing services. We believe that the campaign against anti-abortionists needs a collective approach that brings everyone with us, supports access through a variety of methods to influence those in power and crucially, acts now to defend services.
The open letter has been signed by almost 3,000 members of the public and nine MPs so far, as well as other academics, trade union figures, comedians and writers. Anyone can sign the letter on our website and we are encouraging supporters to contact their MPs to lend their support.
We are aware that in Scotland, nearly all abortions are carried out within the NHS in general hospital or sexual health settings, and that these clinics do not see the same types of clinic protesters.
Now Parliament has re-opened, we will be putting more pressure on the Health Minister to ask what the government's plans are. Our primary objective is to ensure access for women using services. This is even more important when up to 4000 women per year come from nearby Ireland and why we have called for changes in Northern Ireland as our abortion clinics in England and Wales are their closest and cheapest option.
Please join our campaign, our lobbying requires effort, focus and funding. Lend your support and help us defend and extend a safe, free, legal right to choose abortion in Britain - accessible to anyone who needs to use it.
Kerry Abel is the chair of Abortion Rights