‘More vocal, more aggressive’: calls for protest buffer zone at Bournemouth abortion clinic grow | Abortion

Thea Griggs found out she was pregnant the day before her 21st birthday, in 2018. In the days that followed, she was unsure of what to do. She had just left a difficult relationship and did not have the financial means to raise a child. Finally, she decided to have an abortion.

She booked an appointment with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) in Bournemouth and was told about the different options before deciding to go ahead with the abortion. She was told she would be given one tablet, followed by a second a day or two later. After taking the first pill, she left the clinic and was met, to her shock, by six protesters. A woman approached her and handed her a brochure. She ignored her and walked past. The group continued to pray out loud. Someone started shouting.

“It was really terrifying. You’re in a very vulnerable situation, and you have all these people yelling at you and saying you’re going to hell,” says Griggs. That night she struggled to sleep and wondered if she was a horrible person.

Griggs is now one of many Bournemouth residents demanding the council implement a protest buffer zone around the clinic so other women do not have the same experience. “I spent a very long time thinking that I made this terrible decision and that I made a massive mistake, but at the end of the day, abortion is health care. You wouldn’t stand outside a hospital and do this to other patients seeking treatment,” says she.

The clinic is located in a residential area. Photo: Zachary Culpin/BNPS/Guardian

Amid significant local pressure, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council launched a consultation on the issue, which closes at the end of this month. If implemented, the council will follow in the footsteps of Ealing Council, which implemented a buffer zone around a clinic in 2018.

Caroline Brooks, a support services co-ordinator at BPAS Bournemouth, says there have been hundreds of cases like Griggs. She has worked in the clinic for more than 25 years and says that although there have always been protests, she believes they have become more hostile.

“They’ve become more vocal, they’ve become more aggressive in their approach, and I think in some ways they’ve become far more rigid in their views and making sure they impose those views on our people,” Brooks says.

The clinic is located in a cul-de-sac, 10 minutes’ walk from the station. A window in the building has had to be fitted with a special film so that protesters cannot look in.

Red files at the clinic
Staff have filled out complaint forms about protests over the years. Photo: Zachary Culpin/BNPS/Guardian

Brooks and her colleague Adele Warton, a client care manager, point to the nine red folders of testimony they have collected since 2016 about the impact of the protests. Women have complained of being followed into the clinic or accosted when they leave. They have complained of being told “the baby loves them” or asked if they know they are “murdering babies” inside the building. Protesters have stood in front of people’s cars. In a complaint, a client says: “When we passed by she said your baby will live. We drove for seven and a half hours and did not expect this at all.”

Staff have also filled in a number of complaint forms over the years. One worker says she has witnessed “many distressed clients,” including one who injured herself trying to climb a wall to avoid walking past the protesters. Another wrote that protesters have followed her to her car and shouted “murderers”. In one of the most serious incidents, a person dressed in a monk’s sock followed a staff member along the street in the dark as he picked her up.

The protesters are made up of a mix of groups, but regulars include 40 Days for Life, a religious anti-abortion global campaign that originated in the US, as well as members of local church groups. Some have brought plastic fetal models, pushed leaflets through car doors, called women and their escorts “mummy” and “daddy” and hung baby clothes on a hedge.

Warton fears the US Supreme Court decision to strike down Roe v Wade will embolden protesters.

She says: “One of the crucial messages that I have to give to very distressed people sitting in the waiting room is, ‘I’m really sorry, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t go out and move them away. I can’t change this situation.'”

Adele Warton
Adele Warton, a client care manager at the clinic. Photo: Zachary Culpin/BNPS/Guardian

It is for this reason that the campaign group Sister Supporters has stepped in. Established in 2015, the group has teamed up with other local organizations across the UK, providing support to targeted clinics such as Bournemouth. The group has mobilized thousands to sign a petition calling for a buffer zone and is now asking people to respond to the consultation.

Jess Bone, a volunteer for Sister Support Bournemouth, says: “They [the protesters] always say they come with compassion and love. They come up with an alternative option. In general, you have considered the alternative option, which is childbirth and having a child, and you have decided that I do not want it or perhaps the pregnancy is not viable, so you will have an abortion.

“It’s the implicit lack of trust that women know what they want. Even if you pray quietly and unobtrusively, women walking into the clinic know they’re being judged.”

Robert Colquhoun, the director of international campaigns at 40 Days for Life, claims buffer zones are a draconian handover of power. “A lot of women are actually helped by pro-life outreach every year, and that health advice is offered outside the abortion center because that’s the place of need,” he says.

Speaking about the harassment allegations, he adds, “We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of allegations against us, and a lot of those allegations have not been true over time.” He goes on to claim that the group has “helped several women in Bournemouth who were scheduled for an abortion and chose not to proceed with an abortion from that very centre”.

Speaking from her office, which provides a view of the protesters, Brooks says much of her job is now taken up with avoiding protesters and gathering evidence.

“I really shouldn’t have to do this to get to and from work,” she says. “We’ve reached the point now that it’s just gone on too long. It should stop, not increase.”

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