It won't come as much surprise to pro-choice campaigners, but anti-abortion activists hanging around outside sexual health clinics is officially a "source of distress" for women accessing abortion services. That's according to a study by sociology researchers at Aston University in the UK, published earlier this week.
Once a uniquely American phenomenon, anti-abortion protests, or "vigils," have been springing up outside British abortion clinics for the last few years. The extreme tactics of groups such as Abort67 have particularly grabbed headlines for their use of graphic imagery and a (subsequently collapsed) court case against them for harassment.
Yet Dr. Pam Lowe and Dr. Graeme Hayes, who authored the study, were surprised to discover that women were distressed simply by the presence of protesters as much as by their behavior. Although Abort67-style tactics may seem more traumatic less intense forms of protest, like silent prayer vigils, there actually isn't a huge difference in the way they make women feel.
"The sort of things the women said about being fearful, about being uncomfortable, about being intimidated were very similar," says Dr Lowe. "Although people like 40 Days for Life make claims that they're there out of love and to support people, being anti-abortion is now quite an extremist view. Women don't know what these people's intentions are; they're quite an unknown quantity."
Although anti-abortion groups that they're there out of love and to support people, being anti-abortion is now quite an extremist view.
The study, "A Hard Enough Decision To Make," is the first of its kind in the UK to look specifically at women's experience of anti-abortion protests. It forms part of a pilot project on "Abortion Debates in Public Spaces," which, funding permitting, Lowe and Hayes hope will develop into something more comprehensive, featuring interviews with women, service providers, anti-abortion groups, and abortion rights activists.
Lowe says she's approached this research with her knowledge of women's reproductive health, while Hayes brings his expertise in social movements and protest, plus an interest in the balance between freedom of speech and freedom from speech. For this piece of research, they used data provided by more than 200 British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) feedback forms, which, they're keen to stress, they analyzed independently of BPAS.
A quarter of the comments in the study criticize the location of the anti-abortion protests, with many women giving responses like: "I found her presence to be completely inappropriate. I do not deny her a right to an opinion, I feel that outside a clinic of this nature is not the place."
Many women also describe the protests as an intrusion on a private healthcare decision and an offensive challenge to their legal rights, with comments including: "It's a hard enough decision to make without someone who has no idea about our situation interfering", "I believe that I should be morally and legally entitled to access healthcare without harassment and intimidation", and "I felt very angry as I am being judged by a stranger who has no idea why I have decided to get a termination."
I believe that I should be morally and legally entitled to access healthcare without harassment and intimidation.
The delicate balance between free speech and safe spaces is a key area of interest for political sociologist Dr. Hayes, who says: "We've seen increasing limitations on the rights of citizens to make public representations, and I think that's very dangerous."
However, he adds: "I think there's a really persuasive argument that, in this specific instance – because it's a specific constituency of people, and because it is a private healthcare decision – we've probably got the balance wrong on where people can make public political claims about abortion. Balancing rights is difficult, but we do think the women who are upset by anti-abortion activists should have the right to have their voices heard."
The research is likely to add weight to BPAS' ongoing "Back Off" campaign for protest-free "buffer zones" outside UK abortion clinics and, of course, the response is split down obvious lines. Abigail Fitzgibbon, BPAS head of advocacy and campaigns, says: "This ground-breaking report provides evidence from women themselves that they feel intimidated and harassed by anti-abortion activists outside abortion clinics."
Abort67 spokesman Andy Stephenson, meanwhile, dismisses the study as "a propaganda campaign to support BPAS' war on science and free speech", adding: "BPAS want buffer zones because the truth [about abortion] is bad for their business. We will carry on what we are doing because we are pro-child and pro-woman. The women who thank us for changing their minds when they see the reality of abortion, and the women who ask us where we were when they went to the clinics, are reason enough for me that our presence is justified."
Read More: Meet the Terrorists in the War on Women
From their research so far, Lowe and Hayes certainly aren't convinced. "Abort67 are not providing 'the truth of abortion' – they use pictures of fetuses that are clearly very late in pregnancy and are trying to represent them as the majority of abortions. They also say abortion causes breast cancer, which it doesn't, and that it causes mental health issues, which is a lie," Lowe says.
Women also have plenty of opportunity to access information and make up their own minds, Hayes adds. "It's quite laborious and time-consuming to have an abortion in Britain because the 1967 Abortion Act says two health professionals have to authorize it, and the second pill [in a medical abortion] has to be administered in a healthcare situation," he says. "So actually, there are plenty of different points in the process at which women can get information, can get proper counseling, and can take stock of what they're doing."
Or, as Fitzgibbon adds rather more frankly: "Women are perfectly capable of seeking out the support they want – in these cases, women have self-evidently not sought support from anti-abortion activists yet have had it forced on them anyway."