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Should we have buffer zones around abortion clinics?

We spoke to women who had terminations about their experiences of anti-abortion protesters who run vigils outside clinics - and found they were less worried by gruesome images of foetuses than by the presence of cameras.

By Pam Lowe

In England and Wales, there are clear signs of mounting activism outside abortion clinics. Last weekend saw the end of the latest campaign by one prominent anti-abortion group, 40 Days for Life: twice a year, the group organises ‘vigils’ outside clinics, as (predominantly Catholic) activists seek, in their words, to offer choice and counselling to women accessing abortion services. Other groups, such as Helpers of God’s Precious Infants and Abort67, regularly stage actions outside clinics, the latter often displaying large images of aborted foetuses.

In response, BPAS (the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, a major provider of abortion services) launched the Back Off campaign in November 2014. The campaign is designed to persuade Parliament to pass specific legislation prohibiting free assembly of anti-abortion activists in the immediate vicinity of abortion clinics. Exclusion, or ‘buffer’, zones have been the subject of conflict, debate and legislation elsewhere, especially Australia, Canada and the US.

Two issues have proved central: whether anti-abortion activism outside clinics constitutes harassment (and thus is either legal or could already be proscribed by existing law); and whether buffer zones infringe fundamental democratic rights, including free speech and assembly.

This debate has been largely held by activists, politicians, media commentators and lawyers, and has therefore remained somewhat abstract. Our research examines the largely missing voices and views of the women who access clinic services.

In a recent report, we analysed over 200 comment forms from women using BPAS clinics over the last five years, at times when anti-abortion activists were gathered directly outside. We wanted to know what they could tell us about women’s experiences of anti-abortion activism.

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Numerous clinic users emphasised that the presence of anti-abortion activists outside clinics was inherently upsetting, subjecting an intimate decision to public critical scrutiny. Many women described their unease at being watched by strangers; saying this was intrusive, even where the activists themselves were silent or pleasant.

One reason why women considered clinic actions intrusive is that they felt their decision to be fundamentally private. Many women felt the presence of activists outside clinics to be an invasion of medical confidentiality, drawing attention to the building and those entering or leaving it: “It’s unfair. It’s supposed to be confidential”, wrote one woman.

The comment forms highlighted some forms of conduct by anti-abortion activists to be particularly distressing. Many women felt that prayer vigils outside clinics were judging them, highlighted by comments such as: “I felt very angry as I am being judged by a stranger who has no idea why I have decided to get a termination.”

Perhaps surprisingly, despite the public attention given to graphic images displayed by activists, this did not seem to be a major concern for the women and they were barely menioned.

In contrast, several women expressed their distress at encountering anti-abortion activists with cameras. Being filmed, or even the potential of being filmed, is experienced as a ‘paparazzi encounter’: a private moment photographed without consent and exploited by others for their own self-interest. “I did feel harassed and violated as I was being filmed against my will”, wrote one woman. While anti-abortion groups may not intend to take or publicise images of women entering clinics, clinic users themselves have little way of knowing this. They accordingly experience the encounter as intimidation.

Our study therefore makes two important contributions to the buffer zone debate.

First, whilst specific forms of conduct are experienced as particularly intimidating, it is foremost the presence of activists outside clinics that is experienced as distressing.

Second, many women experience activism outside clinics as an intrusion into their private healthcare decision, exposing their decision to public knowledge and breaching their expectations of confidentiality.

Does this matter? We think it does. Peter Williams of Right to Life has argued that buffer zone legislation “would be an illiberal and speech-chilling attempt by the abortion lobby to restrict their opponents”.

As sociologists, we think it important that the views of the ordinary people affected by actions outside clinics should be central to debate, particularly where actions are aimed at specific people (in this case, pregnant women).

We believe that free assembly and free speech are fundamental civic rights, and are extremely concerned at recent attempts by the UK Government to constrain these rights in the name of economic prosperity and national security.

But the rights to privacy and confidentiality in healthcare decisions are surely also fundamental to democratic society. In their comments, clinic users do not deny the speech rights of anti-abortion activists, but argue that clinic entrances are not an appropriate place to use them.

Balancing rights in a democratic society is never easy, but whilst anti-abortion activists have other spaces in which to oppose abortion, women seeking abortion have no choice as to whether or not their private decision is made part of a public debate.

Dr Graeme Hayes is a Reader in Political Sociology at Aston University and Dr Pam Lowe is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University.

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