Presence of anti-abortion activists ‘a significant source of distress’


A new study of people attending abortion clinics finds that the presence of anti-abortion activists outside these clinics represents a significant source of distress for women seeking an abortion – even where the conduct of anti-abortion activists is itself peaceful and polite.

The study, carried out by Dr Graeme Hayes and Dr Pam Lowe of Aston University, analyses comments made to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) by patients of their clinics between 2011 and April this year. It concludes that even where activists are peaceful and polite, the impact this has on those attending the clinics is significant.

The study included analysis of more than two hundred separate user comments, across eleven clinics, and the findings were clear: a quarter of users made direct reference to the site of protests, and the same number said they felt clinic entrances were an inappropriate place for such actions.

Dr Lowe, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University, commented:

“It’s clear from the comments BPAS has received that some women find the decision to seek an abortion hard enough as it is, without the added stress of anti-abortion activists present outside clinics. The location of activists was a common theme in the responses we analysed, more so than the conduct of the activists themselves. The women felt that this was an unwarranted intrusion into a private decision and they were uncertain about the intentions of the anti-abortion activists.

The study found users were conscious of the right of anti-abortion activists to express their views, but believed these rights ought to be balanced with the intimidating nature of their presence outside clinics – with presence rather than conduct the key factor for them. Even when perfectly lawful, the presence of anti-abortion activists can still cause alarm and distress.”

Dr Hayes, Reader in Political Sociology at Aston University, added:

“The rights to free assembly and free speech are a vital part of our society, and as we report in our study, the comments made by BPAS clinic users show that they are keenly aware of this. However, at the same time, they also feel their own rights to privacy and confidentiality in their healthcare decisions must be protected.

“Actions outside clinics draw a great deal of public attention to what is a private healthcare decision. For individual women seeking to use clinic services, this is in itself a significant cause of emotional distress. As our report shows, many feel harassed. More widely, these actions put additional pressures on the delivery of public services. Our findings clearly illustrate the issue needs revisiting to ensure a fair balance is struck between competing rights.”

In November 2014, BPAS launched the Back Off campaign to prohibit anti-abortion actions directly outside clinics. The campaign aims to reduce the distress of service users, uphold the right of healthcare privacy, and reduce the costs associated with the public policing of abortion clinics.

A full copy of the study is available on the Aston University website:​