The BPAS clinic in Richmond and (right) a GCN protester.
Since September 2013, a group of people have gathered in Rosslyn Road, a quiet side street off the main thoroughfare that runs from Richmond to Twickenham in the leafier part of west London. The number of people in this group varies. Some days it’s a small crowd of up to a dozen; on other occasions it’s just one person on their own – but for two years, pretty much every Tuesday to Friday, from 8am until 2pm, there has been someone standing on the pavement.
The people standing there are from a Catholic organisation called the Good Counsel Network (GCN). They position themselves beside a British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) clinic that performs abortions, and they attempt to persuade women not to enter.
But the protesters are locked in an increasingly bitter conflict with local residents who say their lives are being made a misery. The row, which has been building for over two years but has barely been reported, may be a sign of things to come across the country as the British anti-abortion movement adopt more confrontational, street-level tactics from their American counterparts.
BPAS and other pro–abortion rights groups warn that the campaigners' escalation of the issue could lead to incidents of violence, as seen in the US.
Last year, an open letter was sent to health secretary Jeremy Hunt by Abortion Rights UK, calling for measures to support staff and patients at clinics. A report by Aston University later in the year found the protests were "a significant cause of distress".
British anti-abortion protesters deny this, arguing that they want only to educate, and are merely exercising their right to free speech.
BuzzFeed News spoke to a number of people who live in the Rosslyn Road area about their experiences with GCN. None were prepared to allow their names to be reported, because, they said, they were fearful of reprisals.
None of the residents expressed strong views on abortion. “We’re not nimbys,” one said. “We’re complaining about harassment of young people and incitement to violence… If I was leading my daughter to that clinic I don’t know how I’d react to them.” Every resident we asked said they had seen at least half a dozen women in tears on the road as a result of GCN.
The residents told BuzzFeed News that the regular GCN protesters were generally not aggressive: One said they seemed to be “better briefed as to what they can get away with”. However, the problem, the residents said, tended to be more with the volunteers from GCN who also occasionally attend, many of whom, they said, were “aggressive young men”.
One elderly resident told BuzzFeed News that he had been followed from the clinic right back to his front door by a protester, who told him to “man up” because he wasn’t responding to him. When asked what had prompted this, he said, “All I’d done was stare at him.”
Pavement displays used by GCN.
GCN used to bring posters and props including models of babies at various stages of gestation to the clinic to show the women they were approaching, but this practice appears to have stopped, in part, the residents think, because of their complaints. “The most upsetting thing,” one said, “is that they sometimes bring real babies with them to the clinic and hold them up when women are going in. I told them it was disgusting.”
BuzzFeed News approached GCN to request interviews with its representatives, and to ask for responses to the residents' accusations. Clare McCullough, its founder, answered the questions by email, but declined any interviews, offering instead to put us in touch with "some of the women who have received help and support from us via the vigils". We declined this offer as the focus of our story was the residents' complaints about the GCN protesters' conduct.
In her response, McCollough dismissed the accusation that the protesters had left women trying to get into the clinic in tears. "I can categorically state that residents of roads where abortion centres are situated generally will witness dozens of women in floods of tears on their street, whether or not a prayer vigil (not a 'protest') is present, for obvious reasons. We are all aware that abortion is not easy for anyone."
She said she was unaware of any incidents with babies at the protests but said: "Babies are sometimes brought to vigils by mothers who come to pray. And indeed some mums that we have met at the abortion centres, and helped, come back to the vigils to pray for other women later on, which we believe they have every right to do."
One resident said there had nearly been physical violence after a child was given one of the group’s leaflets in front of their mother. When BuzzFeed News visited the area, we were given a leaflet by a GCN protester. In it GCN offers pregnancy advice, counselling, financial assistance, help with babysitting, and referral for adoption. It also claims that abortions can have a number of medical side effects, including “haemorrhage”, “inability to become pregnant in future”, and “breast cancer”.
One tactic used by the protesters is to record video recordings and take pictures. A resident told us about a serious argument that occurred after a man arrived with his girlfriend at the clinic, only to realise that pictures were being taken of them. “It seemed clear,” they said, “that her family didn’t know she was pregnant – the man was threatening to thump them, and eventually the police were called.”
McCullough denied any knowledge of the incident. She wrote: "I categtorically [sic] deny that any GCN vigil staff or volunteer has taken pictures of women entering or leaving the abortion centre. I would appreciate it if this person were to contact us so that we can investigate the alleged incident."
Another resident told BuzzFeed News about an altercation he had with the group after he’d seen a girl in tears as a result of them shouting “heathen” at her, standing in her way to the clinic, and praying on their knees in front of her. He had escorted her to the clinic’s door, and had then turned around to confront them – at this point one of the protesters pointed a phone camera in his face, which he grabbed off her and put down on a wall next to the clinic.
He said that as a result of this GCN complained to the police, who called at his house a few days later and took him to the local station for questioning before letting him go without charge. “They showed me the video from the camera,” he said. “I thought they must have something serious on me, but when I watched it back, nothing had happened. The strongest word I used was ‘scum’. Eventually they let me go.”
“It gets you down after a while,” said one resident, who told BuzzFeed News she had been called a “murderess” because she’d helped a woman gain access to the clinic. On one occasion, she said, when she’d intervened, the protesters had told the woman they were attempting to stop that she was paid by the clinic. The resident told BuzzFeed News that she felt a large part of what she saw on the road most days was “an elaborate act of street theatre”.
McCullough denied both the "heathen" and "murderess" incidents happened: "I deny that this behaviour is practised by any volunteer, or that other volunteers would accept it. No women would seek our help if such behaviour occurred at the abortion centre."
She went on: "We do not accept 'aggressive' behaviour on our vigils and all participants are asked to sign a statement of peace, committing them to peaceful witness. I am not aware of any violent or threatening incidents involving vigil participants."
The residents raised the issue last year with their then-MP, Vince Cable, who at the time was a Lib Dem cabinet minister in the coalition government. He wrote to the home secretary, Theresa May, who said that she understood his constituents’ concerns, but simply went on to lay out the aspects of the law that could be used to disperse the protesters.
The management of demonstrations, she told Cable, was “an operational matter for the police who must, in each case, carefully consider people’s right to protest and balance this with the rights of others to go about their lawful business without fear of intimidation or harassment".
In June last year, local police issued GCN with a Section 14 Public Order Act notice that said their intent was "the intimidation of others with a view to compelling them not to do any act they have a right to do".
But the use of the law was reported in the Daily Mail, which described the decision by the officers to do so as “draconian”. It was swiftly rescinded, the paper reported. “Last night the Metropolitan Police admitted its officers had made a mistake and said the ‘riot law’ should not have been used.”
In her email, McCullough told BuzzFeed News: "Only one staff member or volunteer will approach women as they approach the abortion centre and will offer her a leaflet. If she refuses the leaflet that is the end of the approach from us. We do not behave in any way that can be construed as harassment or incitement to violence. We are present on Rosslyn Road four days a week and it must be clear to everyone that the police would have every right to move us on if either of these things were occurring. In fact the police are aware that we behave in a legal and non-harassing manner."
The residents have tried everything to move the protesters. However, they have been frustrated in their endeavours throughout. In a newsletter last year, they revealed that even a small Italian cafe where they’d met to discuss the problem had been visited by GCN: “Their logic appears to be that, because it is Italian and therefore – according to the protestors – must be Catholic, the cafe should automatically side with them and not support local residents."
GCN has also attracted complaints from people using a GP centre next door to the BPAS clinic. In a letter to Richmond council sent by the patients’ group and seen by BuzzFeed News, a user complains: “These activists use the toilet and leave leaflets on the chairs in the waiting room if not spotted by staff.” The writer goes on to describe how the protesters are not only paid “e.g. £25,000”, but “are supported by lawyers immediately accessible by phone".
BuzzFeed News has independently verified that one of the protesters is paid to be there. It’s unclear whether any others are.
A charity closely aligned to GCN that appears to provide funding has significant resources at its disposal. Its last set of accounts show an income of almost £350,000. As this blog post shows, the use of a parent charity makes it hard to see how GCN spends its money, since it is simply recorded as block grants.
Clare Murphy, of the British Pregnancy Advice Service, told BuzzFeed News:
“We know local residents feel very strongly about the presence of campaigners from the Good Counsel Network outside our clinic, and they have witnessed first hand the effect these people have on women trying to access a confidential medical service at what is often a difficult time in their lives.
“No one wants to close down debate about abortion and women’s rights – as an organisation we are always keen to publicly defend the services we provide to the 1 in 3 women who will need an abortion, and stand up to those opposed to women’s access to reproductive healthcare. However the street outside a clinic is no venue for this."
McCullough said GCN will continue the protests despite the criticism, and suggested it was the protesters who were the victims of harassment.
"We have no intention of affecting local residents' lives at all, but the fact that we exist and have different views to them seems to be an issue for them," she said. "A constant campaign of harassment, insults, taking our pictures, stealing our displays, and abusing volunteers at the vigil has taken place amongst residents since the vigil began. Residents don't seem to know or care about the real help and support being offered to these women, which a growing number of them accept each year."