In a guest blog for MSI Reproductive Choices UK, Polly Jackman and Jess Bone from Sister Supporter share their experiences of abortion clinic harassment – and why Safe Access Zones must be implemented in full.
Sister Supporter is a grassroots organisation set up in an effort to prevent women and others from being harassed and intimidated while accessing the MSI Reproductive Choices UK abortion clinic in Ealing, West London.
Polly Jackman has been a coordinator at the grassroots organisation, Sister Supporter, which campaigns for an end to abortion clinic harassment, since 2016, and is a women’s rights lawyer with Good Law Practice.
We started by observing what was happening outside the clinic. We would form a shield, standing between the harassers and the door to the clinic, holding signs reminding those attending the clinic that the decision to have an abortion was theirs alone to make.
Over the years, standing outside the clinic on most Saturday mornings, I saw and heard many different forms of harassment, including:
- Barricading the door in attempts to restrict entry
- Taking photos or filming
- Redirecting people away from the clinic and telling them they are in the wrong place
- People putting baby clothes in the hedges outside the clinic and displaying graphic images in relation to pregnancy and abortion
- Shouting comments such as “find another job,” “murderer” and “baby-killer”
- Calling women “mummy” or “mum” when they enter or leave the clinic
- Disseminating misleading “medical” information and judgemental leaflets
- Following people up the street as they leave the clinic
- Displaying religious images or handing out pink and blue rosaries
- Salting the floor (to ‘cleanse’), spraying holy water, or throwing red liquid
- Offering to give money, food, or shelter to clients if they agree not to have an abortion
- Praying and singing
- Staring in an unnerving or intimidating manner
- Using visual aids like plastic foetus models.
You can see some of the evidence of these behaviours, gathered by Sister Supporter, here.
On one occasion I had holy water thrown on me and was approached by a woman so full of hatred and venom that she actually spat and hissed as she called me and my fellow activists “dirty women” and asked us when we had our abortions.
But I want to emphasise that, as with many things, it is not always these (hopefully rare) egregious examples that cause the most damage. Those accessing the clinic have made it clear, time and again, that the presence of people, standing silently in judgement, whether they claim to be “praying” or not, is unsettling, upsetting and intimidating. Those choosing to pray outside abortion clinics are doing so because they wish to have an impact on those going in. The intention is to make them feel guilty about having an abortion or intimidate them out of accessing care.
Jess Bone has been a campaigner with Sister Supporter since September 2020. She campaigned for the Safe Access Zone introduced by Bournemouth Council in 2022.
I got involved with Sister Supporter in 2020 when I found out that the anti-abortion groups were still gathering outside my local clinic even during lockdown restrictions. Then, in autumn of 2021, I had to visit the clinic myself and I dreaded having to confront the anti-abortion groups outside. I felt they were this barrier that I had to push through to get to my appointment. I didn’t want to be seen or spoken to or solicited, I just wanted to get to my appointment privately and with dignity, like anyone attending a medical appointment would.
I drove past the clinic before finding somewhere to park to scope out if anyone was there and luckily no one was that day. I was so exceptionally relieved, but I still felt the need to almost jog to the clinic entrance in case they appeared. I felt distracted and anxious during my appointment, in case they were there when I left. If this was how distressed I was even at the possibility of seeing them, how would it have felt if they were there, approaching me, stopping me and telling me to ‘love my baby’?
Safe Access Zones in law and the government’s public consultation
In May 2023, with cross-party support, Parliament passed a law that would establish Safe Access Zones outside abortion clinics making it illegal to harass people accessing services. Yet despite 2000 people a week accessing an abortion clinic which has been subject to harassment, and despite 77% of people backing Safe Access Zones, the new law has not yet been brought into force.
After a long period of delay, the government has finally written draft non-statutory guidance on how the new law should be implemented.
Very sadly, the draft guidance is deeply inadequate and seems to have missed the point that Parliament has already decided that any form of harassment outside an abortion clinic is unacceptable.
But there’s still time to tell the government what you think. Please, fill in the consultation and remind the Home Office of this fact. So-called “silent prayer”, outside an abortion clinic, is harmful. Giving out unsolicited anti-abortion materials, which often include misleading or false claims, to women accessing abortion clinics, cannot be considered “consensual” in any meaningful sense, and is actively harmful. There is no need for intention to be proved – harassment causes harm.
You can find more information about the draft guidance and how to respond here. Please take the time to do so, and/or share with people you know, so that we can end this harassment, once and for all.