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Exclusive: Nurses targeted by anti-abortion protesters

Nurses who work in abortion clinics in the UK are experiencing increasing levels of harassment from anti-abortion protesters, according to a charity which employs them.

Nurses who work in abortion clinics in the UK are experiencing increasing levels of harassment from anti-abortion protesters, according to a charity which employs them.

Protesters’ tactics include using inflammatory or violent language and displaying graphic or disturbing photographs, leaflets and plastic models of fetuses, mirroring similar protests in the United States.

Others involve following women to their cars, blocking pathways, standing close to women to try and engage them in conversation, or knocking on clinic doors.

The exact numbers of staff and patients affected by protesters is unclear, as women are often reluctant to make complaints to the police.

However, as an illustration: 463 women visited the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) clinic in Richmond, Surrey, for help during September last year, where there are commonly 5-day-a-week protests.

Buffer or ‘safe’ zones have been effective in the US, but the UK currently does not have legislation to enforce them.

'Anxiety, upset and trauma'

BPAS director of nursing Mandy Myers said the US-style protests had become increasingly common in the last 5 years.

Ms Myers said the 300 or so BPAS nurses and midwives often had to ‘walk the gauntlet’ of protesters outside their workplaces.

‘These are nurses and midwives going about their daily work to support women in difficult circumstances, having to tolerate increased levels of anxiety and harassment from protesters.’

Ms Myers said many nurses were troubled by the effect protesters had on the women, pointing out that the clinics' vistitors were NHS patients accessing a free, legal and confidential medical service.

‘The nurses have to deal with the aftermath of increased anxiety, upset, trauma for these women, and the feeling they are being judged and doing something wrong.’

One BPAS patient wrote that she had been raped and was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, and ‘couldn’t breathe and felt panicked’ on encountering protesters at the clinic.

Marie Stopes charity chief nurse Vanessa Avlonitis added: 'A small minority of people choose to act out their feelings outside abortion clinics, and some attempt to stop women from accessing them.

'For [our nursing teams], having to walk past protesters will never be an obstacle to their work – it reinforces why the work is so important.'

Right to freedom from intimidation

A Home Office spokesperson said peaceful, lawful protest was 'a vital part of a democratic society' – but protesters' rights had to be balanced with the rights of others to be free 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,' he said.

‘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.'


Further information

BPAS is campaigning for protective buffer zones

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