Outside abortion clinics across Britain, the pavement is a battlefield for issues surrounding the pro-choice movement.
As women attempt to access their legal rights, they are met with pro-life intimidation and religious vigils. A clinic on a quiet side street in Fallowfield is one of those targeted.
Establishing a stark counter-presence are Sister Supporter, a group of volunteers of all ages and professions who wear pink high-visibility vests, offering non-judgemental protection.
Eabha Doherty is a founding member of the group, which began in Manchester almost a year ago. It was a result of a workshop that the Ealing branch of Sister Supporter gave, in preparation for the anti-abortion, “40 Days for For Life” campaign which involves a period of sustained pressure by pro-lifers.
The Ealing branch had been campaigning for a buffer zone surrounding a local Marie Stopes clinic. They successfully achieved a harassment-free safe zone around the clinic in April, subsequently ending 23 years of intimidation.
Abortion was legalised in the UK 50 years ago, yet the conversation is as prevalent as ever. Ireland voted to lift a ban this year, but abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland. In America there have been attempts to destabilise Roe Vs Wade – a 1970s Supreme Court ruling that said a pregnant woman had a constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy.
Sister Supporter says protestors are outside Marie Stopes’ Fallowfield clinic every Saturday, and sometimes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, targeting the clinic’s staff and users.
Eabha says: “Some of the staff have been working there for over 15 years, they’ve told us stories of what they’ve experienced… they understand and are happy that we are there, making their lives a little easier and defusing the situation outside.”
Sister Supporter’s role is shielding women from anti-abortion lobbies, and offering a protective escort for those who might otherwise be deterred from entering the clinic.
Signs are held stating “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “fake news” leaflets are distributed claiming abortion leads to breast cancer. Protestors hand out grotesque model foetuses to women. “It’s very emotionally manipulative,” says Eabha.
In recent years, America’s influence has become apparent, particularly with “pavement counselling”. Eabha says there have been signs advertising “pregnancy hotlines” at the Ealing clinic. “I actually looked it up, it’s unfounded… its not an official counselling service… there’s a lot of unregulated therapists out there, it’s dangerous.”
Some of these pavement counsellors were offering financial aid to women, and proposing “safe houses,” where they would ostensibly help support the woman and her child.
During “40 Days for Life”, Sister Supporter volunteers dedicated themselves to unremitting counter-presence.
Amongst the usual anti-abortion tactics, lies were circulated by protesters, one claimed on social media to have “saved 30 babies” in a single day.
“We are up against fiction,” says Eabha. “We don’t have an issue with people being religious, we have an issue with people trying to prevent women exercising their right to choose, and accessing legal health care.”
She emphasises that Sister Supporter are not anti-religion, nor necessarily pro-abortion, they are pro-choice and carry the all-important task of enabling women to access their reproductive rights.
The support they receive from those using the clinic, their family members, and the local community, highlights just how imperative and vital the group’s work is. Although Eabha stresses that continuous counter-presence is, “not an ideal solution, no one should have to be there.”
Following the success of Ealing, the Manchester branch is working tirelessly to achieve similar safe-zone legislation. There is currently a petition which has reached almost 2,000 signatures.
Much of Sister Supporters campaigning involves raising wider awareness but Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s recent rejection of a nationwide buffer zone was a significant blow for local and national hopes for safe-zones.
Eabha says it was hugely disappointing: “There was a lot of evidence that claimed a buffer zone was needed, they really haven’t seen it with their own eyes.”
A large part of the process for securing legislation is collecting evidence and personal testimony to recognise the trauma experience as a result of anti-abortion lobbying. The difficulty lies in the fact that the problem in Manchester is largely hidden due to the tucked away location of the Fallowfield Marie Stopes clinic.
Eabha says: “There’s not a lot of footfall there, and we’ve had to bring it to the attention of politicians who don’t necessarily know its happening.”
Despite the disappointment surrounding national legislation, Eabha maintains they will get it eventually. “It’s in the hands of people like us to make sure change happens.” Eabha is Irish, and notes with optimism how the Irish government are already considering safe zones when tackling abortion legislation. “They are almost going to be one step ahead of the UK!” she says.
The Manchester clinic is a gateway location and is used by women travelling from Ireland. “It’s awful that you could travel so far to access a legal service, and someone could stand in your way and tell you that you’re a sinner,” says Eabha.
Manchester City Council has voted to look into the problem, and with more petition signatures and exposure, a buffer zone in Manchester is looking promising — yet most likely still a couple of years away. In the meantime, Eabha and Sister Supporter will continue to offer their crucial pink counter presence in Manchester and across the UK in their battle for national legislation and the protection of women’s legal health care rights.
Sign the Manchester buffer zone petition here. Find out more about Sister Supporter via their website.