50.50: Opinion

How we won the UK’s first-ever buffer zone around an abortion clinic

We’re saving abortion clinic users from harassment and intimidation – and our Sister Supporter campaign has gone national

Tanya Taylor
9 June 2021, 6.13am
Sister Supporter campaigners outside the MSI Reproductive Choices clinic in Ealing, west London in 2016
Courtesy of Sister Support. All rights reserved

“Mum!” “Murderer!” “Give your baby a present – a birthday!” For close to 25 years, pregnant people were harassed by anti-choice protesters as they made their way into the MSI Reproductive Choices clinic in Ealing, west London.

Thanks to successful campaigning by Sister Supporter – a group of grassroots activists that I am part of – this is no longer the case. Our activism has also spread nationally, protecting women from anti-choice harassment outside clinics that provide safe abortion care in Richmond upon Thames and Manchester.

Our work continues. According to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), since 2018 there’s been an anti-abortion presence at 42 clinics across England and Wales. More than 100,000 women and pregnant people, according to BPAS research, were subjected to anti-choice harassment while attending an appointment in 2019.

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The 100-metre buffer zone that our campaigning secured around the clinic in Ealing has improved the situation there dramatically. MSI Reproductive Choices says that instances of alleged harassment have virtually disappeared since it came into force.

So how did a group of local women manage to create the UK’s first-ever buffer zone around an abortion clinic, and what can the country learn from this?

Sister Supporter is a pro-choice, anti-harassment grassroots organisation that was founded in November 2015 after an Ealing resident, Anna Veglio-White, returned home from university and was shocked that the anti-abortion groups she remembered seeing as a child were still standing outside the clinic, many years later.

That same week, she placed an advert in the local paper with a call to action: come to a pro-choice counter-demo at the weekend. More than 20 local residents turned up with home-made placards, and Sister Supporter was born.

We had holy water thrown on us, were called ‘murderers’ and told repeatedly that we were going to hell

For the next three years, we stood outside the Ealing clinic every Friday, Saturday and most Mondays, in rain and sun. We wore our signature pro-choice pink vests (from the amazing US charity Clinic Vest Project). We stood in a line with our backs to the clinic, creating a physical barrier to protect clinic users from the assorted anti-abortion groups that would gather on the grass opposite the entrance.

Over the years, we had holy water thrown on us, were called ‘murderers’ and were told repeatedly that we were going to hell. Our policy in response has been to ‘not engage’. While we managed to block clinic users’ view of the protestors, and vice versa, we couldn’t drown out the sound of their anti-choice chants, prayers and songs.

We also collected evidence to build local support for our campaign and look for solutions. This formed the basis of our petition to Ealing Council, which received 3,593 signatures (more than any previous petition by local residents).

In April 2018, a public spaces protection order (PSPO) – a tool defined in the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 – came into force, meaning that protesters could no longer go within 100 metres of the MSI clinic.

Needed: a national solution

Anti-abortion tactics outside clinics include handing out leaflets containing medically inaccurate information. For example, claiming that abortion can lead to breast cancer, eating disorders and not being able to bond with future children.

We have witnessed – and collected statements from – women who report feeling distressed, judged and unsafe because of anti-choice protests outside clinics. Many have missed appointments because they felt unable to face this harassment. Abortion is a time-sensitive issue and missing an appointment can have serious implications.

Clinic staff are also subjected to daily intimidation at work. They’ve been called “murderers” and “baby killers”, and have been followed to their cars.

We supported local residents to campaign successfully for the UK’s second buffer zone, which was introduced in 2019 around a clinic in Richmond upon Thames. In 2020, Sister Supporter Manchester secured a PSPO around a local clinic in Fallowfield. We also have a Sister Supporter group in Bournemouth.

Anti-abortion groups have not walked away without a fight. Ealing's PSPO has been challenged and appealed numerous times in the courts. Each time, however, judges have agreed that a buffer zone is a proportionate response to the intimidation and harassment that clinic users and staff face from anti-choice protestors.

After Ealing’s PSPO came into force in 2018, there were debates about national buffer zone legislation – but the government rejected this idea. We haven’t given up, however, and we’re gathering further evidence of anti-choice harassment at clinics across the country via our Sister Supporter hotline.

We’ve seen first-hand that PSPO-based buffer zones are effective on a local level – but they are by no means perfect. They create a sort of ‘postcode lottery’, and place undue responsibility for protecting people from harassment on local residents and councils.

We believe it is the government’s responsibility to find a solution on a national level – which is why we won’t stop until national buffer zone legislation is implemented.

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