14/12/2014 15:50 GMT | Updated 13/02/2015 05:59 GMT

Women Accessing Abortions Must be Protected From Religious Extremists


The right to seek safe, legal, NHS-funded abortions, which was secured nearly 50 years ago and has helped millions of women deal with unwanted pregnancies since, is now subject to a vile, emotionally manipulative campaign orchestrated by religious extremists.

Women who want to access confidential and lawful advice in abortion clinics around the country are now increasingly also forced to confront extreme anti-abortion protesters who have taken to standing outside clinics and accosting anyone trying to enter. Many of them carry large placards with pictures of dismembered foetuses, hand out leaflets with misleading information about abortion - like claims it will lead to drug or alcohol dependence - and otherwise try to bully and manipulate people. This campaign is nothing more than an attempt to intimidate women at their most vulnerable and cannot be allowed to continue.

Abortion is a legal, NHS-funded service and as such women have a right to access it safely, confidentially and without fear of harassment. The implicit and underhanded nature of the anti-abortion protests women are now routinely subject to means the police's powers are limited and they cannot currently be removed by law. In response, the British Humanist Association is supporting the 'Back Off' campaign launched by BPAS calling for American-style 'access-free zones' to be introduced around abortion clinics, which would prevent protesters from setting foot within a small set distance from the clinic. Access-free zones may seem like an extreme measure, but these extremist groups have so far been able to claim it is within their rights to cause misery to hundreds of women and impose on them their religious, absolutist morality through emotional manipulation. They are now entirely necessary to protect women from such harassment.

This must not be mischaracterised as an issue of freedom of speech. The right to free speech must be balanced with the right for women to seek advice and treatment in confidence and free from intimidation. Anti-choice campaigners are free to protest in public spaces, but it is unacceptable for them to be positioned outside clinics where women are trying to enter. These are not political protests. The campaigners' tactic is now to make women feel so scared, ashamed and insecure that they refrain from accessing a service they are perfectly entitled to.

The religious zealotry shown by these protesters is not shared by the public or even all but the tiniest minority of religious fringe groups. We hope that religious and non-religious people alike can unite in opposition to anti-abortion campaigns such as these and condemn them for what they are: nothing other than devastatingly cruel. No religion which tolerance and compassion can possibly sanction bullying of this kind.

These protesters violate a human being's right to live a life free of undue intimidation and persecution. The BHA's position on abortion is firmly pro-choice and supportive of a woman's right to choose, and we are deeply concerned with any efforts which seek to curtail it. Access-free zones are now absolutely necessary to guarantee this right.