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Sister Supporter ‘stop harassment’ protest
Courtesy Sister Supporter

We’re still fighting for abortion rights in the UK, but we’re winning

Anti-choice protesters have lost their appeal to remove a buffer zone in London – Sister Supporter’s founder Anna Veglio-White discusses the victory, and explains why more still needs to be done

This week, some pretty epic things happened for the pro-choice movement in the UK. In fact, in recent years there have been quite a few epic moments thanks to the organisation I founded, Sister Supporter, and many others who have long been fighting for abortion rights. 

In November 2015, myself and a group of local residents (including my mum and sister) started Sister Supporter in response to daily and prolific anti-choice harassment at my local abortion clinic in Ealing, west London. After returning home from university, I was greeted with scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in Bible Belt America: men standing at the clinic gates clinging on to pink and blue rosary beads; tens of people praying opposite the clinic door with photographs and plastic foetus dolls lined along the pavement like some sort of sick show-and-tell. There had been ‘vigils’ held at this clinic for over 20 years, and with that, thousands upon thousands of women and pregnant people were traumatised, distressed, and scarred by the actions of those at the clinic gates.

Fast-forward to April 2018, and after a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, the UK’s first ever buffer zone was introduced outside our clinic. This was a momentous, hard-earned victory, won by many people, which makes what happened this week all the more special. The Supreme Court denied an appeal application by the anti-choice group fighting the buffer zone; they have now exhausted all legal options available to them in this country. This also marked the third time a challenge to the buffer zone had been unsuccessful in a court of law, as the group had already brought cases to the High Court and Court of Appeal. At every single stage, the buffer zone was upheld.

This sends an incredibly powerful message; our legal system supports protected abortion access. Multiple judges – some of whom are the most powerful people in our justice system – found that there was not only sufficient evidence of harassment, but it was severe enough to warrant a total ban on activity near the clinic.

However, Ealing’s buffer zone must be renewed every three years, as must the others that are either currently in effect, or in progress. It’s also only one buffer zone, in a country with hundreds of clinics. After Ealing, we worked with local residents and BPAS in Richmond to secure a buffer zone there, and we have three more active campaigns across the country. This is obviously fantastic (YAY us), but it also creates a postcode lottery – a hideously unfair geographical draw whereby those accessing services at a clinic with a buffer zone are able to do so free from interference, intimidation, and harassment, and those without buffer zones aren’t. They will be approached, called “mum” or “murderer”, be told they should “change their lifestyle”, be followed, physically assaulted, or worse. 

At this point, I imagine you’re mouthing “dumb bitches” at the screen, and wondering why we haven’t been asking for a national solution. Well, we have. In 2018 – the same year the Ealing buffer zone came into effect – the Home Office launched a review into harassment at abortion clinics across the country. To provide some context; the anti-choice movement – I refuse to use the term pro-life as it is a: misleading (I love life), and b: gross – is steadily on the rise in the UK. Emboldened by Trump, Pence, and their band of merry wankers, the anti-choice minority feel validated in their views, and unchallenged in their actions. In 2014, the ‘March for Life’ wasn't an event that we were even blighted with here in the UK, but by 2019, not only was it here, but over 5,000 people attended. This rise in activity made me feel confident that the clear, undeniable evidence of this nationwide issue would make our darling government swoop in and save the day. I, of course, could not have been more wrong.

“Emboldened by Trump, Pence, and their band of merry wankers, the anti-choice minority feel validated in their views, and unchallenged in their actions”

The Home Office’s review began under Amber Rudd, and unfortunately ended under Sajid Javid. The review found that just under 10 per cent of clinics in the UK were severely affected by this unique form of gender-based harassment, and yet Javid felt that a national solution would “not be a proportionate response”. He was “adamant that where a crime is committed, the police have the powers to act so that people feel protected”. As Javid made these comments in September 2018, baby clothes were being left on bushes outside a clinic in Bournemouth, a man was guarding the gate at a clinic in central London, and staff at a clinic in Manchester were being followed home from work. 

We did a little bit of maths – 10 per cent of clinics works out at roughly 20,000 women and pregnant people a year. If we took this figure and applied it to people being harassed at a place of worship, or any place where a majority of the visitors were male, I feel absolutely certain that Javid’s response would have been very different. Sajid Javid sees abortion as “taboo”, as a “women’s issue”, and to put it simply; doesn’t give a fuck. 

Which brings us to the second epic thing to happen this week, Richmond Park MP Sarah Olney brought a Private Member’s Bill to parliament, yet again asking for national buffer zones. While this is unlikely to bring a change into law, it raises the issue in parliament, as again we question why the government is failing to act. After the landmark referendum in Ireland, where an overwhelming majority of the nation voted in favour of abortion access, legislation automatically included buffer zones. So, why is it different in the UK? Why are we still asking for protection over abortion access 52 years after the law was changed? Unlike Ireland, we are not pre-empting an issue, we are asking for a solution to an existing and prolific problem. So, while this week has been epic, it has yet again demonstrated that our laws and government are still riddled with misogyny. Until abortion is safe, legal, and free for everyone in this country, including Northern Ireland, let’s keep on keeping on.

You can support bpas’ Back Off campaign for national buffer zones legislation here