The ‘Back Off’ campaign to create ‘exclusionary zones’ outside abortion clinics has generated a great deal of support in recent months, including a petition with over 100,000 signatures. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has found a substantial increase in the number of anti-abortion protestors actively blocking, harassing or intimidating women entering clinics. BPAS have therefore called for legislation to make ‘buffer zones’ of at least 10 metres. The campaign has attracted support from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Rape Crisis England and Wales, the Royal College of Midwives, and Violence Against Women. In addition, Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband have recently considered legislation on this topic.
Abortion has always been, and always will be, a highly sensitive issue. It is really important in such emotive debates to consider how the status quo could affect the most vulnerable. Imagine you are a rape victim. You have made the difficult but completely understandable and legitimate decision to have an abortion, albeit not without regret and huge conflict of emotion. But, having made that decision, you arrive at the clinic to be confronted on the steps with posters and leaflets illustrating dismembered foetuses, banners screaming ‘Protect the Embryo’ and even recording equipment testifying your entrance into the clinic.
The sad truth is that these protests are not just nuisances for patients; they have a very real effect upon women’s state of mind before having an abortion. Anti-abortion groups trade on this power. Such groups claim that they are “educating” women about the reality of abortion. But the images they use are not representative of the vast majority of cases; they are created as propagandist pieces of emotional manipulation. The leader of Abort67, Ruth Rawlins, says that they are helping women make “an informed choice”. But emotional blackmail does not help people make rational choices.
BBC Newsbeat spoke to a 21 year old anonymous woman who had an abortion at a Marie Stopes clinic and found the protestors “really upsetting”. She said, “It’s not like you haven’t thought it through and you’re just doing it on a whim. Nobody has an abortion on a whim. So it just reinforces a bunch of emotions that you don’t need and probably can’t handle much at that point in time.”
One BPAS patient claimed, “If it was my first appointment I probably wouldn’t have come in. I had to phone a family member crying as I didn’t want to walk past.”
So long as abortion is legal in the UK, there should be free and accessible provision where there is need, without the threat of social condemnation or intimidation. Of course, ‘exclusionary zones’ will not completely solve the problem. But it will provide a ‘safe space’ around clinics so that patients will feel as protected, safe and relaxed as possible.
Opponents argue that this is an infringement of free speech and the right to protest. It is nothing of the kind. There is nothing free about actively intimidating others, especially some of the most vulnerable people in society while they are receiving a legal operation.
The ‘free speech’ card is recurrently used to legitimize exclusionary and intimidating actions. It is rarely used to protect the rights of those in society who are most likely to be silenced.
Of course, free speech should be exercised at times in the debate around abortion. The steps leading to the abortion clinic provide neither the correct time nor the place.
Equal rights for women has, unfortunately, always been a radical concept to some. In the 1910s, the idea of female franchise was a radical one and in their campaign for the vote women chained themselves to railings, went on hunger strikes, even detonated bombs. While methods of demonstration have changed, women have continually challenged existing social structures and attitudes in a manner that certainly did not pander to traditional ideas of female behaviour. These forms of protest are ‘radical’ and they are visible.
In the 1960s and 70s, women began to live in ways that challenged the traditional idea of nuclear families. Feminists such as Lynne Segal sought empowerment through collective living. Other radical feminists rejected any kind of relationship with men, instead advocating lesbianism, asexuality or celibacy. Here, again, accepted social norms were dismantled by groups of women seeking emancipation in ways that were novel and shocking to some parts of society.
Today, inspiring men and women are continuing to challenge sexism, standing up against cat-calling, unfair media representations and rape culture. People continue to take a stand, refusing to be cowed by negative responses. Fear is a tool of oppression and by refusing to mitigate their actions they refuse to be oppressed.
It is when we place the issue of legal exclusionary zones in this larger historical narrative that it becomes more contentious. The idea that women making brave and difficult choices about their bodies needs to be hidden away, as though it were something shameful, is a disquieting one. When women experience ‘slut-shaming’ for exercising their sexual agency, it is a powerful and sad reminder that there will always be those who will attempt to shame women for exercising their rights. By closeting a woman’s right to choose, this action itself becomes one of ‘shaming’. The creation of exclusionary zones suggests that abortion is not a normal action condoned and accepted by society. This is surely the wrong message to be sending to women making brave and difficult decisions.
Hiding away has never beaten the bullies. History shows that acting visibly, and not shying away, in the name of feminism, has lead to great feminist achievements. Despite the inevitable angry reaction from some segments of society this causes, it has never, and should never, deter women from challenging oppressive structures in the search for equality. By continuing to practice openly the culture that feminists believe in, whether mainstream patriarchal society agrees or not, a fairer and freer culture can become normalised.
I realise this point of view is selfish. No woman should feel she has a duty to stand up to anyone, especially those that harass or intimidate others. She should not feel indebted to a grandiose narrative of resistance in a situation as emotional and potentially vulnerable as abortion.
Ultimately, we do need safe spaces for women to make their choices. However, we must face up to those who challenge us. Exclusionary zones may hinder us by hiding away what we want to proudly assert, by making it abnormal. By openly challenging norms that prevent progress, we can stand tall. For those who can and who want to challenge these norms, we must stare our oppressors in the face, assert our rights proudly, not hidden away behind legal curtains.