'40 Days for Life' outside the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) offices, London.
'40 Days for Life' campaign outside the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) offices, London.

The image of religious protesters outside an abortion clinic – holding candles and praying, or shouting at young women while brandishing gruesome posters – conjures a particular place. We think of the United States. Not everyone knows that this kind of scene also plays out in the UK. Efforts are now being made to protect British women seeking to exercise their reproductive rights. This has created a backlash from anti-abortion protestors.

Buffer zones are areas outside clinics providing abortion, implemented to prevent women from being abused and harassed on their way in and out. In Northern Ireland, a bill to make it a criminal offence to protest within 150 metres of any clinic is currently passing through parliament. In December, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that while the bill did restrict protesters’ rights, these restrictions were justified.

The court acknowledged that the case was “highly sensitive” but stated that the women accessing abortion services “have a reasonable expectation of being able to do so without being confronted by protest activity designed to challenge and diminish their autonomy and undermine their resolve.” It took into account that clinic staff could also be intimidated, harassed and abused. Legislation is also now passing through parliaments in England and Wales, and is being considered in Scotland.

The president of the American anti-abortion campaigning group 40 Days for Life responded to the Supreme Court ruling with a video promising immediate action. This is a US-based group, but it is active in Northern Ireland and Scotland. In September 2022, the group organised a six-week “prayer vigil” targeting clinics in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and Falkirk. It is just one of several anti-abortion groups who strongly oppose buffer zones, framing it as a free speech issue.

The first legally enforced buffer zone in the UK was created in 2018 in the west London area of Ealing. Soon after this, the government rejected calls for nationwide buffer zones in England and Wales. Since then, 50 clinics have been targeted by anti-abortion protesters in England and Wales, according to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). But there are presently only five buffer zones in England, including in Bournemouth, where the director of anti-abortion group March for Life Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was arrested outside a clinic in December.

Clare Murphy, BPAS chief executive, said: “Anti-choice groups routinely follow women and healthcare professionals as they enter and leave clinics, display graphic banners of dismembered foetuses, and tell women that if they terminate a pregnancy, they risk breast cancer and long-term mental illness.”

The level of resistance and organisation from anti-abortion groups indicates that even if the new laws go through, and more buffer zones are created, this will not be the end of the fight. It’s one that we must win.

This piece is a preview from our New Humanist spring 2023 edition. Subscribe here.