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Anti-abortion campaigners target 12 clinics with 40-day long "vigils" despite current pandemic, placing the health and wellbeing of thousands of women at risk.

  • Today, the US-based anti-abortion group 40 Days for Life will begin 40 day long protests outside 12 abortion clinics across England, causing significant distress for thousands of women and healthcare professionals.
  • The tactics employed by 40 Days for Life protesters, such as approaching those attending the clinic and gathering in groups in front of clinic entrances, place women and staff at increased risk of COVID-19.
  • Clinics in London, Birmingham, and Swindon have already been forced to call police to report protest groups for breaking social distancing rules and, in some cases, the law.
  • Despite the introduction of telemedicine for early abortion, around half of all women still attend a clinic at some stage in their treatment. BPAS has warned that those who need in-clinic are likely to be particularly vulnerable, including younger women and those with safeguarding concerns, as well as women ending a wanted pregnancy due to a diagnosis of a fetal anomaly.
  • On 24th June, MPs voted 213-47 in favour of Rupa Huq MP’s cross-party bill to establish buffer zones outside all clinics. The bill is due to receive a second reading this Friday 25th September.
  • Last year, more than 100,000 women attended clinics that were targeted by anti-abortion protests.

A US-based anti-abortion organisation will today, Wednesday 23rd September, begin 40-day long "vigils" outside twelve abortion clinics in England. Despite the current pandemic, the number of 40 Days for Life protests has increased from ten sites during their Lent protests earlier in the year, and three of the protests will take place outside clinics that had not previously been targeted by the group. The charity the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, BPAS, has said that these groups cause significant distress.

In February, telemedical abortion care was introduced to enable women having an early medical abortion to avoid having to travel to clinic during the pandemic. However, around half of all women ending a pregnancy will still need to attend a clinic at one stage of their treatment. BPAS has said that women who are attending clinics are disproportionately likely to be vulnerable, including younger women where we may have safeguarding concerns, necessitating an in-person consultation, women at later gestations including those who may be ending a much-wanted pregnancy due to a diagnosis of fetal anomaly, and clients attending for miscarriage management.

Tactics employed by 40 Days for Life protesters include approaching and following women as they enter and leave clinics, handing out medically inaccurate leaflets including the false claim that abortion causes breast cancer, pushing leaflets through car windows as they wait to enter or exit the clinic, and filming women and staff.

As a result, during previous 40 Days for Life protests, women have reported feeling harassed and distressed by the groups’ presence and their behaviour:

"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." – Bournemouth, Lent 2020

"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..." – Brighton, Autumn 2019

"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." – Leeds, autumn 2019

Government guidance on social distancing states that members of the public should try to keep at least 2 metres away from people who they do not live with, and that they should avoid physical contact; being close and face-to-face; and shouting or singing close to them. Post-lockdown, some protest groups have already returned to clinics and have broken social distancing rules and in some cases, the law. Police have been called to attend clinics in Birmingham, London, and Swindon due to protestors not observing social distancing, gathering in groups, or approaching women entering the clinic, increasing the chance of transmission.

In September 2018, the-then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid MP, declined to introduce new legislation to address issues raised by women and healthcare providers following a Home Office review of anti-abortion clinic. Since then, 42 hospitals and clinics, which together treat more than 100,000 women a year, have experienced anti-abortion protest activity. Only two of these 42 clinics, Ealing and Richmond, now have a buffer zone in place following action by local councils. 11 of these 42 are new protests outside clinics that have not previously experienced issues.

In June 2020, Rupa Huq, MP for Ealing Central, tabled a cross-party bill to establish buffer zones across the country. MPs voted 213-47 in favour of the bill, and the bill is due to receive its second reading this Friday, 25th September.

Rupa Huq 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."

Rachael Clarke, Public Affairs and Advocacy Manager at BPAS 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."

ENDS

For further information please contact BPAS on press@bpas.org or 07788 725185

About BPAS

BPAS is a charity which sees almost 100,000 women a year for reproductive healthcare services including pregnancy counselling, abortion care, miscarriage management and contraception, at clinics across the UK. It supports and advocates for reproductive choice. BPAS also runs the Centre for Reproductive Research and Communication, which seeks to develop and deliver a research agenda that furthers women’s access to evidence-based reproductive healthcare, driven by an understanding of women’s perspectives and needs. You can find out more here: https://www.bpas.org/get-involved/centre-for-reproductive-research-communication/

BPAS intends to launch a not-for-profit fertility service in Spring 2021, to provide ethical, evidence based, person-centred care that supports patients. We intend to only charge what it costs to provide a safe, high-quality, and accessible service to patients who may be unable to access NHS funded care.