Last October, a GP practice opened up an abortion service. Days before it opened, the protests started. A practice manager wrote to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas):
"Today we have anti-abortion protestors outside the building. They came in today shouting about us letting Bpas into our surgery. They tried to film me but I sent them out of the building and they have told me that they are going to protest outside every day until your services have been removed."
That is exactly what they did. In this case, the practice managed to stay open, but there has been at least one other clinic which had to close under similar pressures. As the manager wrote:
"The longer the protestors continue their fight the more the staff and patients are getting upset by their presence and intimidation. The practice does not have the resources to deal with this constant problem."
This was not an isolated case. Incidents take place regularly at clinics across London, including Stratford and Richmond, where complaints have been made by local residents, and elsewhere in the country, including clinics in Brighton and Chester.
The protests are called 'prayer vigils', but they are aggressive, intimidating affairs. They are organised by well-funded groups like Abort67, 40 Days for Life and the Good Counsel Network, with a combative legal protection system which treats any attempt to curb their activities as a challenge to religious freedom.
Women going for an abortion must pass by these protests as they enter the clinic. Large banners showing dismembered foetuses are held along the route. Protestors often follow and question them as they enter and leave, very often with cameras strapped to their chest or on a tripod. They call them murderers.
Video by Sunny Hundal
This morning, Bpas will send a letter to policing minister Mike Penning asking him to consider creating 'buffer zones' between protestors and those trying to attend the clinics. They are unlikely to get a positive response. The Home Office has largely ignored them.
They wrote to Norman Baker when he was in the Home Office. No response. They wrote to his replacement, Lynne Featherstone. No response. Eventually, Labour MP Dianne Abbott started asking questions on their behalf. A civil servant eventually wrote back during the election purdah in a rather pointless letter laying out the current laws available to police and refusing to commit to further action.
"Decisions on how to manage demonstrations are an operational matter for the police. Home office officials have also met with the relevant national police lead, who gave assurances that police forces do recognise the sensitivity of the issue and already have all the powers they need to deal with any criminal activity and are managing protests locally."
No minister has agreed to Bpas' request for a meeting.
The truth is, there are plenty of laws the police could use against these protests. The reason is simple: this is not about protest. It is about harassment, a behaviour for which there is plenty of legislation available. These groups have every right to protest within sight of a clinic. They do not have a right to frighten women attending them, by approaching or following them, by filming them, by pushing upsetting posters in their face, by calling them murderers. It is quite obvious what is happening here. This is not about protesting. It is about stopping women getting abortions.
It is also a public health issue. Women attending clinics with big protests tend to present later. They go the first time, see the protest, get frightened and go home. Then they return at a later date. Abortion is very safe, but the earlier it is done the better. The intimidation tactic will not ultimately stop abortions, but it will put women at greater risk of harm.
We don't need buffer zones. The Public Order Act 1986 makes it an offence to display words or images that may intentionally cause harassment, alarm or offence. The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 gives the police dispersal powers to prevent or stop members of the public being harassed, alarmed or distressed. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 prohibits a person from pursuing a course of conduct which amounts to harassment of another person to do something they are legally entitled to do.
These pieces of legislation are actually very problematic and broad. Police constantly used the Public Order Act to arrest people for swearing at anti-war protests, for instance. But it is telling that even with such broad and indistinct legislation, they are unwilling to use it for situations in which it would actually expand citizen's freedom, rather than just to clamp down on it.
In fact, it is members of the public challenging the protestors who are targeted by police. Two have been arrested for doing so recently. One was released without charge after damaging the hinge of one of the posters. Another, who was with his children at the time, put protestors' material in the bin and has been charged with theft by finding. He is due in court this summer.
The treatment of the anti-abortion protestors is much milder. Sussex police arrested two members of Abort76 in 2011 over graphic banners outside a Brighton clinic. The case was thrown out. Two years later, police in Richmond used the Public Order Act in a similar action which was similarly unsuccessful. There's not much of a track record there.
The filming of women going for protests is particularly pernicious, but again little is done to stop them. A borough commander was contacted in Southwark to notify him of women being filmed entering a clinic. He agreed it was a problem and committed to take action. The action consisted, bizarrely enough, of telling the protestors they could not use tripods, but were fine as long as they held the camera.
Even abortion groups accept buffer zones are not strictly necessary. But police have misused the laws designed for situations like this for so long they are seemingly unaware of their proper usage. If the Home Office would produce guidance to explain to police how to use these powers in these specific circumstances, the harassment of women seeking abortion could be stopped.
But instead it is silent. It does not reply to letters or agree to meetings. It does not even seem to recognise that the problem exists. Its argument that police have the powers to deal with the situation does nothing to address why they have not. It is burying its head in the sand. So given the authorities' utter failure to deal with the problem, you can hardly blame Bpas and their allies for calling for buffer zones – a simple and clear policy, arrived at reluctantly, to protect the legal rights of women. It is regrettable, on many levels, that the policy needs to be called for at all.
A Home Office spokesperson said:
"Peaceful, lawful protest is a vital part of a democratic society – but protesters' rights need to be balanced with the rights of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation.
"Decisions on how to manage demonstrations are an operational matter for the police but we are very clear that all suspected criminal behaviour should be investigated.
"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."