8 Dec 2014

Abortion buffer zones: free speech v free choice

As the shadow home secretary calls for a consultation on “buffer zones” around abortion clinics, one woman tells Channel 4 News anti-abortion protesters manipulate vulnerable people.


The 21-year-old, who does not wish to be named, told Channel 4 News, that she attended the Marie Stopes clinic in west London at the end of October and found the surrounding pavement outside lined with plastic foetuses and graphic images of the process.

“They weren’t aggressive or loud, but it was emotional blackmail, at a time when I was already emotionally overwhelmed,” she said.

It’s an invasion of personal space and personal choices. Woman who attended the Marie Stopes clinic

She was speaking as Yvette Cooper called for the government to consult on whether buffer zones, used to protect abortion clinics in the US, should be introduced in Britain. “We don’t want the kind of harassment and abuse that we’ve seen in the US imported into Britain,” she said.

The proposal follows the Back Off campaign, organised by the British Pregnancy Advice Service (BPAS), which has seen an increase in activity outside advice bureaux.

‘Religious beliefs’

One of the protesters was said to be handing out pro-choice leaflets, while three other men knelt down with rosary beads. She said she felt as though they were imposing their religious beliefs on her: “There must be a more constructive way instead of manipulating me.

“I had thought the decision through and it was the right decision. But they took the facts and attempted to rub it in my face.

“It makes you so angry. It’s an invasion of personal space and personal choices.”

Anti-abortion protesters

The north London woman, who had two appointments at the clinic, said she dreaded to think how abuse victims would feel: “I wouldn’t consider that a peaceful protest.”

Freedom of speech

Genevieve Edwards, director of policy and communications at Marie Stopes International, said that the protests were a form of intimidation that women “extremely uncomfortable”.

She acknowledged that people had a right to protest, but an access zone would make a “clear line.

“While we obviously uphold people’s rights to freedom of speech, protesters can cross the line.

While we obviously uphold people’s rights to freedom of speech, protesters can cross the line. Maries Stopes International

“Protests should not be at the expense of a woman’s right to legal health services”.

Ms Edwards said that in the past it had been difficult for police to act, as people were allowed to demonstrate on pavements, but a zone would help establish boundaries.

“Our relationship with local police has been good, but you can’t call them every day.

“In this way, police can break up any behaviour that crosses the line.”

Ms Edwards said that protests were mostly peaceful, but that it varied from clinic to clinic and campaigns were now escalating.

Pro-choice protesters

The head of anti-abortion group Precious Life, Bernadette Smyth, was convicted last month of harassing the director of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast.

Right to protest

However, the communications manager of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) told Channel 4 News he was concerned at the implications. Anthony Ozimic said: “We are concerned that [buffer zones] serve to interfere with the right to protest.”

Mr Ozimic said that activists outside clinics were providing information for women, and that it should not be called or seen as “harassment” but a right to challenge women who enter the clinics.


The vice-chair of Abortion Rights said that anti-abortion activism was escalating, with campaigns such as 40 Days for Life becoming a worldwide issue.

Kate Smurthwaite said the protests were “making the problem worse”.

It has to be done in an escalating situation. Kate Smurthwaite, Abortion Rights

She said: “It’s a real shame it’s come to this, but the protests have become more extreme.”

She referred to reported incidents of staff members being targeted outside clinics: “I don’t like free speech being impinged. But with situations such as with BPAS staff members, it has to be done in an escalating situation.”

Is it a solution?

BPAS Director of External Affairs, Clare Murphy, told Channel 4 News that some staff members had resorted to leaving the centres through fire escapes.

The debate should be with us and not the women. BPAS

Ms Murphy said: “If we could ensure the areas around clinics are sacrosanct, it would make a huge difference to many women. It won’t completely solve the situation…but the debate should be with us and not the women.

“We thought there would be concerns over restrictions, but people have been horrified that this was happening to the women.

“If they feel they have the right to harangue women over women’s right to have legal access to health services, there’s a problem with them.”

Asked about a video where a pregnant woman delivered an impassioned plea to anti-abortion protesters outside a GP clinic in London last week, the young woman said she became emotional watching the footage, adding: “She hit the nail on the head.”