Anti-abortion protesters have deterred women seeking abortions from going into clinics as well as entering healthcare services to hunt down staff, frontline service providers warned.
40 Days for Life, an American-based anti-abortion group, started demonstrations outside a dozen abortion clinics across England last week which will continue for 40 days.
Abortion providers warn the protesters, who are known for harassing women seeking abortions, put the health of thousands of women at risk as they infringe coronavirus restrictions.
Campaigners are calling for the government to roll out buffer zones blocking anti-abortion protests outside clinics nationally.
Abi Smith, a clinical nurse manager at an abortion clinic in Bournemouth run by British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the UK’s largest abortion provider, told The Independent: “I thought ‘not again’ when we had a notification to say they would be outside the clinic doing a vigil for 40 days. It is a real heart sinker because you just feel so deeply for people who are trying to access the clinic.
“Having an abortion is a tough enough journey already without having to face the perceived judgement of others. 40 days for life tend to be more organised and in bigger groups than other protesters so there presence is quite intimidating. Women are incensed they are are there and think they have a right to an opinion which is nothing to do with them.
“When we are talking women who are pregnant through their choices, we first spend some time on how they have been made to feel by the protesters outside. Some women are hurt. Some women are angry. Some women are ashamed. A massive part of our responsibility is to enable the most vulnerable to access the healthcare they are legally entitled to. Women are annoyed and frustrated it is something they have to go through just to access the service.”
Ms Smith said women needing a pregnancy terminated who have encountered anti-abortion protesters in recent days have told her the activists look intimidating.
Women have also questioned why they are allowed to gather in a group bigger than six given the government’s current rule of six to curb the spread of coronavirus, she added.
Ms Smith, who has worked for BPAS for seven years, said the protesters distribute leaflets about fictitious abortion reversals which are not founded on any research and do not work - as well as pushing false information about side effects of abortions which again have no scientific basis.
“The process of getting here is now more complicated for women because local lockdowns, or children being off school or women having to quarantine because of coronavirus,” she added. “It just adds stress to get here and have the added obstacle of a group of protesters outside. It is counterproductive. It doesn’t achieve anything - protesters are not going to stop people from accessing abortion but just make them feel rubbish.”
She said while healthcare staff had got used to seeing protesters outside clinics, it was more difficult for women as it is often the first time they have ever accessed the service. Ms Smith said she had seen a group of ten members from 40 Days for Life in recent days despite coronavirus regulations.
Although telemedicine has been rolled out for early abortion since the coronavirus emergency – around half of all women still go to a clinic at some point during their treatment.
Women who need to go into the clinic in person are likely to be especially vulnerable, such as women who are being forced to terminate a pregnancy they wanted after being diagnosed with a fetal anomaly.
A healthcare professional, who works at an abortion clinic in Birmingham run by BPAS, told The Independent: “A woman called to cancel her appointment today in Birmingham due to protests. The woman advised there were lots of protestors and she did not want to come inside the clinic.”
While another member of staff, based at their clinic in Newcastle, said she had seen five 40 Days for Life protesters standing outside their abortion service.
“One of them approached me and asked where the abortion clinic was,” the healthcare professional, who chose to remain anonymous, added. “I asked why he wanted to know and he replied that he wanted to hand out leaflets to women. Earlier in the week they had been inside the building trying to find our rooms.”
40 Days for Life protesters are known for filming women attending abortion clinics as well as following them as they arrive at and depart clinics and distributing leaflets which contain medically false information including the erroneous fact breast cancer is caused by abortions.
A woman seeking an abortion in Merseyside, who recently encountered the demonstrators at a clinic, said: “They were saying prayers, engaging, make me feel guilty, uncomfortable, intimidated – like a sinner because they asked my religion. They made me question my decision, but I came back anyway.”
While a member of staff at the same clinic said: “Six 40 Days for Life protesters were outside the clinic on Tuesday this week and standing at both entrances. They are not observing social distancing and have been praying loudly at clients entering the clinic, which is very distressing for clients. We have called the police.”
Another added: “They approached the woman outside the clinic and asked if she hadn’t already had the second part of her treatment, could they give her a leaflet? She said ‘no’ but was uncomfortable – she said it was wrong that they are allowed to stand outside.”
More than 100,000 women went to clinics anti-abortion demonstrations targeted last year. The government rejected calls for the introduction of “buffer zones” barring anti-abortion protests outside clinics across the UK in October 2018.
But MPs in the commons voted 213-47 in support of Rupa Huq’s cross-party bill to set up buffer zones outside all abortion clinics. The Labour MP’s bill was scheduled to have its second reading last Friday but this has now been postponed to November.
Last week, Richard Bentley, managing director of Marie Stopes, a leading UK abortion provider, told The Independent: “These groups are always a concern for our teams, who witness the cruel tactics they use to turn women away from clinics and during a global pandemic their behaviour is quite simply putting lives at risk.
“Women are subjected to graphic imagery, told they are going to hell and handed plastic foetuses and insidious leaflets that address them as ‘Mum’. During 40 Days for Life, this intimidating behaviour can escalate still further, with groups besieging clinics for 12 hours at a time.”