Inside the abortion 'buffer zone' battle: why is it *still* raging on?

an anti abortion protestor holding a sign next to a pro choice protestor
Why the abortion 'buffer zone' battle is raging onGetty Images

Standing outside a Tesco Express in Reading, is a slight middle-aged man wearing a brown trilby and glasses, holding a sign that says ‘Pray for Abortion’. Beside him is another man in a black t-shirt, holding a string of rosary beads and quietly reciting a prayer. They are across the street from a British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) clinic, a medical facility that performs abortions.

The men stand here on their lunchbreaks, evenings and at weekends, rotating in and out of an organised cast that hopes to ‘peacefully’ close the clinic through the power of prayer. They say their Christian principles have called upon them to do this and to ‘help women’, to save them from what they consider to be the ‘trauma’ of abortion.

An organisation called 40 Days for Life has them well-trained for their cause. A global ‘pro-life’ initiative with Christian roots that initially began in 2004, 40 Days for Life was created with the purpose of forcing a Texas clinic to close (it did, 7 years later – something Planned Parenthood said was due to state budget cuts). The group now has a UK presence with at least twelve other sites besides Reading, and claims to have amassed more than a million volunteers worldwide. At its core, 40 Days for Life encourages members to join a campaign it runs twice a year – for forty days and nights – and sees ‘vigils’ held outside of clinics at an increased frequency. They are careful not to use the word ‘protest’ for several reasons, and say their numbers have now reached more than 1,000 cities in 64 countries.

There are just two men when I visited one of said ‘vigils’ in September last year, but they are impossible to miss if you were en route into the clinic. They stand and stare across the street, around 25 metres away from the clinic, silent watchmen. This is despite legislation requiring a 150-metre ‘buffer zone’ outside of every abortion clinic in England and Wales being passed in May 2023. A similar law is currently moving through the Scottish parliament, while Northern Ireland implemented legislation for safe access zones last autumn – though several parts of the region have yet to see its effects.

So, why is it that anti-abortion campaigners like this are still able to stand so close to a clinic?

While we might like to believe we’re a liberal nation (76% of British people support abortion), the act of abortion in itself is still criminalised in England and Wales in certain circumstances. This means a person can still be jailed for obtaining an abortion past 24 weeks gestation, or if it hasn’t been authorised by two authorised doctors – something that doesn’t apply to other health procedures.

Similar organisations to 40 Days for Life, like March for Life, also claim their numbers are inflating. It’s difficult to verify the data when many of the statistics are coming solely from Catholic-affiliated publications, some of which claimed that 7,000 people attended an annual anti-abortion march through London in 2023 compared with a supposed 4,000 in 2018.

We may feel like the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US doesn't affect us here, but similar views to reproductive rights are gaining momentum in the UK as well...

In the zone

The man in the brown trilby is named Martin. He is the organiser of the Reading branch of 40 Days for Life, and coordinates a 40-day-long ‘vigil’ outside his local BPAS clinic twice a year. Martin tells me he was raised Catholic and has taken part in at least nine of these events in the past. He says they have always been conducted peacefully, as per the terms and conditions of the 40 Days for Life code of practice (a copy of which he hands me).

It must be signed by all those partaking in a ‘vigil’ and lists 19 bullet points ranging from “I will show compassion and reflect Christ’s love to all abortion clinic employees, volunteers and customers” to “I will only use posters or banners authorised by 40 Days For Life/the campaign leader during abortion centre opening hours… We encourage volunteers to make good use of them”. Other points advise singing and praying “will be at a gentle volume”, that littering is forbidden and “if there is any threat to your safety, it is recommended you leave the vigil and perhaps return at another time”. If confronted by police for any reason, 40 Days for Life volunteers are also encouraged to show their signed ‘statement of peace’.

Martin is clued up on his legal rights and the ongoing delay in implementing buffer zones. “We’ve had staff say you can't give out leaflets, but we're entitled to do [so] under present law,” Martin explains. “So I just stand my ground.”

a man and woman holding a sign that protests against abortion
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Claire*, who was shouted at by protestors (she is unsure which campaign group they belonged to) outside a clinic in Leeds when seeking an abortion in 2022, says it’s enough to make you “feel like a criminal... But not enough to deter you once you’ve made that choice, it just served to make me feel bad about it even though I didn’t beforehand.”

Martin says he has strong contempt for those (be they 40 Days for Lifers or otherwise) who harass women, block paths or who carry themselves aggressively, as anti-abortion groups can do – but even with those more obvious behaviours out of the picture, clinic staff still have concerns that the mere presence of an anti-abortion group could deter or intimidate a woman from getting the healthcare support she needs, or make an already difficult day even worse.

“I think they feel they're doing something good and they've got a real purpose,” comments Jeanette Pennicott, Unit Manager for BPAS Reading and Slough. “But I don't think [Martin and other protestors] actually know some of the implications they have on women, even if they're doing it calmly. Everybody has a story and everybody has a reason why they come to these clinics... People are making life changing decisions. They don't need all this outside, it adds to the trauma of them coming in.”

Concerns over the government’s delay in putting the buffer zone law into practice are incredibly real, says Michaela McDaid, the Operation Service Manager at MSI Reproductive Choices in Brixton, London. In her experience, many anti-choice organisations and protesters have actually taken this as a nod from the government to increase their activity. “Since the actual legislation was voted on in May 2023, there's been more activity in South London than ever before. We used to get people outside maybe one or two days a week, now it’s daily,” she says.

Commenting on the eight-month delay, the Home Office minister, Lord Sharpe, more recently said it was down to the new legislation centring on such “an emotive topic [with] strong views on all sides of the debate… determining the appropriate balance will not always be straightforward." He added that it’s absolutely necessary for there to be a consultation on how best to put the law in practice, but clinics and other politicians disagree, saying there are already successful examples of buffer zones that can be used as a frame of reference.

McDaid explains the clinic she works for is currently in limbo. Typically, a Public Service Protection Order (PSPO) would be implemented in a specific area temporarily to stop harassment, but they’re costly and time consuming to procure. McDaid says that Lambeth Council, along with MSI, felt this wasn’t the best route of action given there has actually been a law voted in. But communication on when it’ll come into full force has been lacking from the powers that be.

“We know from colleagues in Manchester and West London, where a PSPO is in place, that it’s been so helpful and really changed patients’ experience. They’re no longer being confronted directly by these people; the law should be doing that too,” McDaid says.

The clinic manager also worries that recent positive victories for the pro-choice movement, such as the introduction of telemedical abortions on a permanent basis (after they were introduced as a temporary measure during pandemic lockdowns), is spurring on the other side – causing tensions to deepen.

It’s true that 40 Days for Life is becoming more vocal and holding their ‘vigils’ at a boosted rate. They even have their own language – ‘turnarounds’ are women they’ve managed to dissuade from carrying out a termination and embryos and foetuses at any stage are referred to as “the unborn”. It also proudly puts forth the likes of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood staff member turned anti-abortion crusader (whose claims about how medical abortions are carried out have been disputed by experts), at speaking events.

a sign with red text saying my uterus my rules
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“We've closed abortion clinics, we've had abortion directors who run clinics come over to pro-life,” says Martin. “Because we patiently pray, smile, talk to them about these issues if they're willing to talk. We've had real convergence.” He repeats that ‘abortion is a business’ despite it being free healthcare for many clinics in the UK, including for 97% of those who use BPAS’ services, and doesn’t appreciate his taxes going towards clinics.

As well as asking all members to sign a ‘statement of peace’, Shawn Carney, the President and co-founder of 40 Days for Life (who reportedly earns $240,000 a year), offers training courses (at a cost) for those keen to join him in ‘spreading the word to save lives’ and has published several books on that matter. His podcast features guests like Steve Karlen, the organisation’s campaign director, who in one episode describes abortion as “the greatest human rights crisis of all time”.

The group tweeted that in the United States, the latest 40-day ‘vigil’ resulted in “505 babies [being] saved… that we know of”, “two abortion clinics closed forever” and “three abortion workers [becoming] pro-life and [leaving] their jobs”. The group does not explain how its prayers or movement helped to shut two clinics and did not respond to Cosmopolitan UK’s request for comment on this.

Martin says his own beliefs developed over time to such an extent that he’s now willing to coordinate a group of people to stand out in all weathers for over a month and a half straight (the organisation offers no expenses) – and, as he’s aged, his opinions have only solidified.

He is also “unashamed” in telling me that the end goal of 40 Days for Life in Reading is to close the BPAS clinic they stand opposite from and says they direct ‘turnarounds’ to non-NHS or government-affiliated women’s centres, often referred to as ‘pregnancy crisis centres’ – almost a third of which have been found guilty of spreading misleading medical information, unethical advice or sometimes both (as per a recent BBC Panorama investigation).

“If there's a woman who comes to us who needs help, I am allowed to give the Good Counsel Network’s number,” he says, adding that it has a centre in London with ultrasound equipment. “They can try to help with accommodation or offer advice on claiming benefits.” In the past, the Irish division of the GNC have been accused of running misleading and harmful adverts on social media, including ones that claim abortion makes women suicidal or can lead to breast cancer (something Martin also tried to emphatically tell me was true, but for which there is no conclusive evidence).

A topic that often comes up during reproductive rights discourse is conception as a result of rape. Martin says ‘ignorantly’ he “used to think rape could be an exception” but he’s “come to realise it can’t be justified under any grounds”. In his mind, “If [a woman] gets an abortion, she's going to add another trauma on top of the trauma of rape. The better solution is adoption”. Sooner or later, he stresses, “everyone will regret it… sooner or later it will catch up”.

Dr Ravi Gill, Chartered Health Psychologist and trauma specialist, however, explains there’s no conclusive evidence that a termination will result in poor mental health for every woman, but of course it can for some. Other factors such as a history of ill mental health, whether the pregnancy is wanted, and exposure to anti-abortion picketing also feed in – the latter being the greatest risk factor.

“Whilst it can be argued that abortion may have a traumatic impact, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s a woman's ‘choice’ – something that was perhaps taken away during a sexual assault,” says Dr Gill. “By exercising this choice, it provides a reaffirmation of her identity, a key component in rebuilding self-esteem.”

Research also shows that the majority – 95% of women – don’t regret seeking a termination.

The British government’s reluctance to put in place proper enforcement of this law has caused some cross-party concern, with the likes of Conservatives Baroness Liz Sugg and Caroline Nokes MP and Labour MP Stella Creasy loudly questioning the delay.

The delay is also at odds with the wants of the majority who support a woman having the right to an abortion, a number that has more than doubled since 1983. Perhaps coincidentally, during this time, religion has fallen out of favour in England and Wales, making both countries no longer Christian majority.

Too close for comfort

Across the UK, anti-choice groups vary in their protest and vigil tactics. Videos and imagery often circulate online showing people trying to block women on their way into clinics, calling them “mum”, handing out baby dolls, or hurling abuse at staff and displaying graphic (and inaccurate) imagery on placards.

“You've got women that are coming into the centre crying their eyes out, how is that ‘helping them’?” McDaid asks. “I can see clients being approached at the gate and they seem okay. Once they walk in the door, they’re crying because they’ve read the leaflet.” The pamphlets she’s seen firsthand advise women to “get help from a real women’s centre” instead of going through with an abortion.

A Home Office spokesperson shared with Cosmopolitan UK that decisions on how to manage demonstrations are an operational matter for the police who must, in each case, carefully consider people's right to protest and balance this with the rights of others to go about their lawful business, without fear of intimidation or harassment.

They did not make clear whether ‘prayer vigils’ would fall under this banner, but said “under the Public Order Act 1986, it is an offence to display images or words that may cause harassment, alarm or distress”. As of November 2023, the government committed to launching a consultation on the issue of buffer zones outside of clinics and said the earliest date of the law being properly enforced is still a way off; loftily throwing out ‘spring’ with regards to a timeframe.

McDaid also stressed that in her eyes, the buffer zones don’t go far enough in the first place, and abortion ought to be decriminalised.

a woman holding a sign saying get your religion off my body
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“Sometimes guidance is needed to go alongside a new law – but this is a funny one, in that we’ve already had de facto buffer zones through PSPOs [providing an example model of how they ought to operate],” Stella Creasy MP tells Cosmopolitan UK. She cites the success of the MSI clinic in Ealing where buffer zones are in place, at which staff say proper policing has transformed the environment. “There's already plenty of guidance, plenty of evidence about how to make this stuff work […] There is no good reason for this delay.”

Creasy argues that this ongoing wait and poor communication is not the normal process for enforcing a law once it has received Royal Assent, suggesting the government is deliberately dragging its heels, leaving more women vulnerable to abuse as the process continues to be drawn out.

The lag, Creasy adds, “raises real questions about democracy; this wasn’t a close call. Parliament overwhelmingly voted for it”.

The ‘free speech’ question mark is one that seems to be growing. While Creasy says she will always “passionately defend the right of people to advocate against abortion” what she won’t do is “defend their right to debate it in your face when you’ve made that choice”. Others are concerned about the ‘policing of thoughts’. With the government consultation, is there a need for more explicit guidance on silent protests and praying outside of clinics?

Martin points to Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, the director of another anti-choice group (March for Life UK), who was told “praying is an offence” and arrested when standing quietly outside of a clinic in Birmingham earlier this year.

She claimed to have had no anti-abortion signs or otherwise on her and when approached by officers, Vaughan-Spruce denied wrongdoing – saying she was merely exercising her right to pray in silence wherever she saw fit. She later received an apology from police. Martin says that he has also been verbally abused by the general public himself.

“Even if I have to stand here quietly praying without my cards, we will carry on doing that,” Martin says, referencing his mission to ‘save lives’. “We don't want to break the law, but we'd have to find a way around the buffer zone if it does get implemented.” As for how this might play out, anti-choice groups could easily pivot from IRL to URL, increasing the already large swathes of misinformation that exists about abortion online.

Since meeting and spending time with Martin, and deep-diving into anti-abortion groups, it’s clear to me that people like him are just as adamant that what they’re doing is correct – helpful even – as I am that their actions are wrong and harmful. The calm spreading of misinformation and the promise of eternal doom for anyone who has an abortion without shame is just as insidious as screaming and blocking people’s paths – but I don’t know if they’re even aware of that. Or maybe they are, but they feel special ‘spreading God’s word’ and that keeps them hooked on it.

It’s unlikely either side will bend to the will of the other any time soon and this issue, of whether or not abortion is ‘acceptable’ or something in need of being wiped out, will forever lead to a stalemate. But perhaps at least by spring there will be a 150-metre buffer separating the two sides – and the women caught in the middle will be spared the crossfire.

* Name has been changed

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