“Being pregnant when you don’t want to be is a very traumatic thing to have to deal with.” I’ll never forget these words. They were uttered by a clinical team leader at Marie Stopes on the steps of their Whitfield clinic in west London, two years ago, as he ushered me quietly inside. At the time of my visit, I was writing a piece about 90 years of women’s reproductive choice, advice and empowerment for The Pool. It was, I’d pitched, to be a commemoration of everything the family planning organisation had achieved since its creation in 1921. And, yet, my visit was a profoundly unsettling one, even from the objective perspective of a reporter; marked, distorted and encroached upon before I’d even crossed the clinic’s threshold and stepped inside. To the left of me, only a few metres away from Marie Stopes’ iconic blue door, two anti-abortion campaigners sat silently on fold-up chairs, heads bowed, with a placard that read: “Feel like you have no choice? We can help.”
Every year, countless women make the journey I did on that sun-dappled October morning as an observant reporter. They cross the cobbled street that leads to Marie Stopes’ Whitfield clinic seeking advice, support and – in some cases – abortion treatments to terminate a pregnancy that is, for a myriad of personal or medical reasons, something they do not wish to proceed with. These women are exercising autonomy over their own bodies in a safe, supportive environment free of judgement or coercion. In a world where reproductive rights are being rolled back to a pre-Marie Stopes marker – where seven million women are hospitalised due to unsafe procedures every year – it is something to celebrate. And, yet, every year, thousands of peaceful routes are ambushed with unnecessary anguish and pain at a time of increased vulnerability. Peaceful autonomy is, instead, forcibly replaced with hostile, third-party intimidation.
This week, one London borough has acted decisively, in what has been dubbed a “radical move”, to protect women from anti-abortion protestors who congregate outside abortion clinics. And, much like the law that ensures medical and surgical procedures are open for pregnant women to terminate a pregnancy in the UK, I believe it is something to celebrate. After months of discussion, debate – and a public consultation that garnered a 3,500 strong response (reportedly the largest response to a consultation in the borough) – Ealing council unanimously voted in favour of creating a buffer zone around a Marie Stopes clinic within its jurisdiction. It’s a move that could encourage further councils to follow its lead across the country.
Being pregnant when you don’t want to be is a very traumatic thing to have to deal with. It’s up to all of us – women and men – to ensure the trauma is kept to an absolute minimum
Although using different techniques to the anti-abortion protestors I encountered in silent vigil two years ago, Catholic anti-abortion group The Good Counsel Network achieved the same aim under a different guise – to unsettle women in that short walk between the Tube station and the clinic door. According to reports, protesters regularly handed out teddy bears calling visiting women “Mum”. Anna Veglio-White, co-founder of the pro-choice organisation Sister Supporter, told The Guardian that “women had been asked to pick pink or blue rosaries for the sex of their unborn child, priests had asked women to ‘give their child a birthday present’, and that women had been approached directly at the front of the clinic.”
The news has been welcomed by a wide range of politicians – including London mayor Sadiq Khan. In a statement I found to be most powerful, council leader Julian Bell told The Guardian: “I’m, personally, a practising Christian myself and so I think it’s important to recognise that this is about protecting women from harassment and intimidation. We’ve always been clear that that’s what this was about. It wasn’t a debate for or against abortion.”
Which is what makes Ealing council’s vote such a landmark decision – because, in this instance, a peaceful passage to safe treatment isn’t about who’s for and who’s against. It’s about safeguarding women’s bodily autonomy within the rule of law. Freeing them of strategic harassment and ensuring that their reproductive rights aren’t compromised within a stone’s throw of the very centre that’s been built to protect and support them.
This story doesn’t belong to those who seek to disrupt the most deeply personal and private choice a woman is ever likely to make. It’s about the thousands of women who are asking those with authority to preserve and protect their right to make this choice without fear of intimidation or judgement.
Being pregnant when you don’t want to be is a very traumatic thing to have to deal with. It’s up to all of us – women and men – to ensure the trauma is kept to an absolute minimum. That a woman’s choice isn’t just fought for. It’s enshrined.