A group of women's charities and their supporters have issued a fresh plea to the government to ban anti-abortion activists from protesting directly outside abortion clinics in the UK.
In a letter to home secretary Amber Rudd, the heads of 14 leading women's organisations, including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Mumsnet, and Women's Aid, urge the government to introduce and enforce "buffer zones" around the clinics where the activists can't protest.
"We write to ask you to take action to protect women seeking pregnancy advice and abortion from intimidation and harassment by those with extreme anti-abortion views who stand outside UK clinics," the letter reads. "This is a persistent problem that requires national oversight and input from the government."
Polly Neate, the CEO of Women's Aid and one of the letter's lead signatories, told BuzzFeed News that control over a reproductive choice is one of the many ways women experience abuse.
"There are many reasons why a woman might seek an abortion," Neate said. "If this is what she chooses to do she must be able to do so safely without the threat of harassment or intimidation.
"Anti-abortion activism is a snapshot of a widespread attitude that underpins violence against women – that women are not entitled to autonomy over themselves."
Justine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet, said users of the popular parenting network believed it was unacceptable that people trying access this kind of healthcare were being frightened and pressurised.
"Similarly that healthcare workers are being harassed just for doing their jobs," Roberts added. "Everyone is entitled to a viewpoint on abortion, but that doesn't include the systematic intimidation of patients."
BPAS has been campaigning for the establishment in the UK of "buffer zones", which are common around clinics in Europe and the US, since 2014, but ramped up efforts after a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation revealed the increasingly aggressive tactics being used by anti-abortion groups.
Earlier this year, residents living near an abortion clinic in London told BuzzFeed News about an ongoing dispute with activists who had on occasion become violent.
"We believe that the government has a responsibility to act on anti-abortion extremism and introduce legislation ... to prevent these activities in the immediate vicinity of clinics," the letter says.
Last week a spokesperson for the Home Office told BuzzFeed News that although "protesters’ rights need to be balanced with the rights of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation", local police are able to respond to incidents individually.
“Police also have powers to set conditions on a demonstration – including its location, how long it lasts, and how many people are involved – and can disperse people if their harassment is causing distress,” the spokesperson said at the time.
The letter to Rudd says ministers have failed to grant a meeting with BPAS about buffer zones, on the basis that police were already able to handle the matter.
But, the organisation continues, "BPAS and other abortion providers have discussed this matter with police across the country, who have all said they are unable to use existing legislation to tackle the issue."
Following receipt of the letter, a Home Office spokesperson said the department's position remained that current legislation was sufficient, and said there were no current plans to further explore the issue with police on a local level.
Women's groups, however, still do not believe there is sufficient commitment from the government in preventing the intimidation of women seeking abortions.
"This is an organised campaign of intimidation focused exclusively on women," the letter concludes.
"It is hard to accept that if any other group were being targeted in this way the Home Office would not intervene.
"We ask that the government acknowledge the evidence, listen to women’s voices and act now to protect women before the situation escalates any further."
Read the full letter here:
Rt Hon Amber Rudd MP
2 Marsham Street
7 October 2016
Dear Home Secretary,
We write to ask you to take action to protect women seeking pregnancy advice and abortion from intimidation and harassment by those with extreme anti-abortion views who stand outside UK clinics. This is a persistent problem that requires national oversight and input from the government.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and supporters of the Back Off campaign, which calls for the establishment of safe zones outside clinics, first asked the Home Office to look into this this issue in 2014. To date no Minister has granted us a meeting on the basis that police are able to deal with this at a local level. BPAS and other abortion providers have discussed this matter with police across the country, who have all said they are unable to use existing legislation to tackle the issue.
Channel 4’s Dispatches programme has shown new evidence of the deteriorating behaviour of anti-abortion activists outside clinics, and the impact this can have. Women are harassed when entering and leaving clinics and given misinformation about the risks of abortion in an attempt to frighten and deter them from seeking help. One woman featured in the programme described how she was physically blocked by a protester when trying to leave a clinic. As police say they are powerless to act on this and individual women unwilling to breach their medical confidentiality to push for action, these groups have become increasingly emboldened, safe in the knowledge there will be no repercussions from their behaviour.
We believe that the government has a responsibility to act on anti-abortion extremism and introduce legislation to create ‘buffers zones’ to prevent these activities in the immediate vicinity of clinics. The right to respect for private and family life, as conferred by Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, includes protection of someone’s physical and psychological integrity, the right to healthcare, and the right to privacy. As a result, women have the right to access abortion services without being harassed and intimidated, and the state needs to ensure they can do so. Our views are explained further in the attached legal briefing.
This is an organised campaign of intimidation focused exclusively on women. It is hard to accept that if any other group were being targeted in this way the Home Office would not intervene. We ask that the government acknowledge the evidence, listen to women’s voices and act now to protect women before the situation escalates any further.
If we can provide any further information please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Ann Furedi, Chief Executive, British Pregnancy Advisory Service
Polly Neate, Chief Executive, Women’s Aid
Justine Roberts, Founder, Mumsnet
Sam Smethers, Chief Executive, Fawcett Society
Professor Cathy Warwick, Chief Executive, Royal College of Midwives
Ros Bragg, Director, Maternity Action
Sarah Green, Co-Director, End Violence Against Women
Natika H Halil, Chief Executive, Family Planning Association
Genevieve Edwards , UK Director of Policy, Partnerships & Communications, Marie Stopes International
Vivienne Hayes, Women’s Resource Centre
Marai Larasi, Executive Director, Imkaan
Dawn Thomas, Co-Chair, Rape Crisis England and Wales
Dianne Whitfield, Co-Chair, Rape Crisis England and Wales
Pavan Dhaliwal, Director of Public Affairs and Policy, British Humanist Association