Anti-abortion protesters have begun demonstrations outside a dozen abortion clinics across England which will continue for 40 days - risking the health of thousands of women.
40 Days for Life, an American-based anti-abortion group which have stepped up their tactics in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, are known for harassing women who want to have a pregnancy terminated.
The activists, whose new protests start on Wednesday, follow women as they arrive at and depart abortion clinics - distributing leaflets which contain medically false information including the erroneous fact breast cancer is caused by abortions.
British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the UK’s largest abortion provider, warn their tactics put women and abortion clinic staff at risk of catching coronavirus.
A teenager needing an abortion, who encountered the anti-abortion campaigners in Brighton last Autumn, said: “She told me I was a murderer and killing my baby. She then showed me pictures of what it'll look like in a leaflet then said the drugs weren't safe and brought religion into it. It made me feel uncomfortable as I'm only 17.”
Another woman, who came across them in Bournemouth during Lent earlier in the year, added: “They were pacing outside, making comments and abusively pressuring people to leave. Literally came up to the car and waited for us to get out to make comments.”
Abortion clinics in London, Birmingham, and Swindon have already been forced to call police to report protesters for infringing social distancing regulations during the public health crisis.
Rachael Clarke, of British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said: “Anti-abortion groups stand outside clinics not to change the law but to pressure and harass individual women who are trying to access the healthcare they’re guaranteed under the law. These women deserve to access this care without being followed, lied to, and frightened by groups of people who place their own beliefs above compassion and care for women in the most difficult of circumstances.
“Despite what the government has said before, these protests are not small scale or local problems. More than half of all women who had an abortion in 2019 had to go to a clinic targeted by these groups. It is essential that new legislation is passed to protect women’s privacy and their ability to access healthcare without harassment.”
The 40 Days for Life protesters, who will be demonstrating outside clinics they have not previously targeted, are known for filming women seeking abortions and health professionals working at the clinics as well as putting leaflets through car windows.
Richard Bentley, managing director of Marie Stopes, a leading UK abortion provider, told The Independent their staff have been “working round the clock” to ensure services remain open in the wake of Covid-19 restrictions and it is “disgraceful” this is being “undermined by a radical minority group” intent on refusing women basic healthcare.
Mr Bentley said: “These groups are always a concern for our teams, who witness the cruel tactics they use to turn women away from clinics and during a global pandemic their behaviour is quite simply putting lives at risk. Women are subjected to graphic imagery, told they are going to hell and handed plastic foetuses and insidious leaflets that address them as ‘Mum’. During 40 Days for Life, this intimidating behaviour can escalate still further, with groups besieging clinics for 12 hours at a time.
“Ealing council put a stop to this kind of abuse with the country’s first ever buffer zone around our West London clinic, transforming women’s experience and virtually eliminating all incidents of harassment and today Manchester council is working hard to do the same. But until that happens women will continue to be targeted.
“We are a firmly pro-choice nation, but sadly, a small minority of people believe otherwise and would like to see the country take a backwards step on the issue. These groups should not have a free pass to harass women they don’t know, invade their space and block their right to healthcare. While we respect and support the right to free speech, we are adamant that protests should never be at the expense of a woman's right to legal health services.”
Although telemedicine has been rolled out for early abortion since the Covid-19 emergency - around half of all women still go to a clinic at some point during their treatment.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service warns women who need to go into the clinic in person are likely to be especially vulnerable - ranging from younger women and those with safeguarding concerns and those who are being forced to terminate a pregnancy they wanted after being diagnosed with a fetal anomaly.
One woman, who encountered 40 Days for Life protesters in Leeds last year, said: “They were waiting outside the entrance to the centre, holding signs of foetuses and horrible language about being a killer. It made me really angry and upset. I drove myself to my appointment and had to turn in to the car park with them watching me. I wanted to get out of my car and shout at them! It made me feel violated and unsafe.”
Rupa Huq, a Labour MP, said: “Even in the midst of a pandemic that has killed over 41,000, so-called ‘pro-life’ protesters remain hellbent on breaking the rule of six in order to intimidate vulnerable women. Their actions are disgraceful and expose their hypocrisy.
“It’s unacceptable that women cannot freely present themselves for healthcare, over 50 years after abortion was made legal. Service users are still barraged with medically inaccurate foetus dolls, handed misleading literature, called ‘mum’ and threatened with eternities in hell. It’s the same old tactics, designed to bully women who are simply accessing the services they are legally entitled to.
“We need buffer zones across the UK to protect service users from such tactics. This would not curtail the rights of anyone to demonstrate against abortion – just not at the gates of a medical facility.”
MPs in the commons voted 213-47 in support of Ms Huq’s cross-party bill, which will have a second reading this Friday, to set up buffer zones outside all abortion clinics.
More than 100,000 women went to clinics anti-abortion demonstrations targeted last year.
The government rejected calls for the introduction of “buffer zones” barring anti-abortion protests outside clinics across the UK in October 2018.
While abortion is legal in the UK, there are vast swathes of the world where the procedure continues to be criminalised, with abortion even illegal in instances of rape and incest.
The World Health Organisation estimates that each year between 5 per cent to 12 per cent of maternal deaths globally can be attributed to unsafe abortion – with the annual cost of treating major complications from unsafe abortion estimated at $553m (£435m).