Clear the Clinic Circuit: Why our abortion laws aren’t as clear cut as they could be

13,583. This is the number of women aged 15 – 44 who had abortions in Scotland during 2019; the highest amount in over ten years. Having an abortion is often a difficult and frightening decision for any woman to make, no matter the circumstances. However, this difficulty can often be heightened by the presence of ‘pro-life’ protesters gathering outside sexual health clinics, potentially intimidating women.

Abortion Laws in the UK and Ireland

The UK has some of the most up-to-date social and medical practices; with the very first law legalising abortion arriving in 1967, this once stigmatised topic is now far less of a taboo. Following the fashion in 2018, the Republic of Ireland repealed their Eighth Amendment, which essentially banned abortion, with a landslide 66.4% win for the right to choose. While legislation is a positive step for women seeking abortions, anti-abortion protesters – usually positioning themselves outside clinics – persist. Although the right to protest is “protected under the European Convention of Human Rights”, gathering outside sexual health clinics serves only to intimidate and deter women from having an abortion, making an already difficult process infinitely harder.

I visited a sexual health clinic recently, to see the extent of this scenario. While walking outside of the clinic, I was approached by a woman within around 5 minutes, offering me a leaflet and holding a poster which outlined the development of a foetus in the first 12 weeks of life. The anti-abortion protesters, who declined to comment, had set up a chair outside the clinic waiting for women to arrive. And, while it is completely within their right to do this, there is an argument for them doing so in a less intimidating way for the protection of their often vulnerable targets. 

Buffer Zones

Buffer zones outside abortion and sexual health clinics are an option. The implementation of a ‘buffer area’ in which women can enter without being approached/spoken to, as protesters cannot be within a certain distance of the building, gives women a chance to have clarity and make their own decision while in this position. Back-Off is a campaign which is trying to introduce this as legislation, stating that: “the right to protest needs to be balanced with the right of pregnant women to obtain advice and treatment in confidence and free from intimidation.” 

Buffer zones have already been implemented around certain clinics, such as in Labour MP Rupa Huq’s constituency (Ealing Central and Acton), where she campaigned for this to become legislation. The clinic in Ealing now has a 300m ‘safe zone’, preventing protesters from gathering around the clinic gates. However, clinics were heavily targeted by protesters in 2020 when they reopened after the national lockdown, creating more demand for change. Home Secretary Priti Patel spoke of this issue in Parliament towards the end of last year, saying: “Harassment and intimidation are utterly unacceptable. We are reviewing our work and policies on this issue and I think that’s absolutely right and proper.”

Impact of Covid-19

Unsurprisingly, sexual health services have been massively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, with access to the majority of services being limited. This has created issues for abortions within the UK and Ireland as, while they are now legal within the island of Ireland, the access to abortion is not as widely available as it is in Britain. This means women tend to travel to England to have abortions, as they had to when the practice was criminalised. However, the Covid-19 travel restrictions that the UK government imposed last year left Irish women seeking abortions stuck between a rock and a hard place. Towards the beginning of the first lockdown, a report revealed that women were being told to take an 8 hour ferry from Northern Ireland to England in order to have an abortion. This meant that a woman who is pregnant and seeking an abortion may have had to travel 8 hours on a boat during a pandemic in order to receive medical care. And when she does eventually make it to the clinic, she may be approached outside of the building by intimidating protesters.

Whilst abortion is no longer the taboo matter it once was, women are still facing issues like these when seeking help. Should buffer zones be introduced, or is it within protesters rights to protest as close as they like to clinics? Should women have to travel across borders for the medical help they are entitled to? Should we do more to make sure no woman feels embarrassed or trapped? Where do we draw the line between free speech and privacy breach? Whatever the answer, protecting these vulnerable women is critical.

To read more about the Back Off campaign, visit:  https://back-off.org/get-involved/