SisterSupporter – protecting women from harassment and defending reproductive rights

By Lindsay of SisterSupporter and West London Radical Assembly

SisterSupporter is a new pro-choice campaign group which formed in October 2015 to tackle the issue of religious campaigners standing outside of the Marie Stopes clinic in Mattock Lane, near Ealing Broadway in West London.

Currently in Ealing there are anti-abortion campaigners outside the clinic up to five days per week with larger religious vigils happening outside every couple of months. Clinic users have to negotiate their way past two or even three campaigners as they enter or leave the clinic. SisterSupporter formed to tackle this issue and defend our sisters (and anyone else) from this harassment outside the clinic.

These religious groups claim that they are there to provide support to anyone who changes their mind but in our experience their presence is more likely to be read by members of the public and clinic users as intimidating or harassing. We don’t believe their presence is supportive and we challenge behaviour such as displaying life size models of foetuses or holding loud religious vigils outside.

SisterSupporter believe that that anyone accessing the clinic (for contraception, advice, abortion or aftercare) has a right to do so without being stopped or scrutinised by anti-abortion campaigners outside. We believe current harassment laws are inadequate because the burden of reporting and challenging the behaviour of anti-abortion campaigners currently lies with those entering the clinic. Many women do not want their presence at a clinic to be recorded, nor do they wish to discuss the matter in court at a later date. For this reason we (and BPAS – the British Pregnancy Advisory Service) believe that harassment at clinics is under-reported and that a change in legislation is required to protect clinic users. A buffer zone is a specific defined area into which anti-abortion campaigners legally cannot go. Distances vary from place to place but currently the state of Tasmania in Australia has 150m buffer zones for clinics and British Columbia, Canada allow 50m. This is to allow people to access clinics confidentially and without harassment.

Buffer zones are controversial and they are not supported by everyone on the left or in pro-choice campaign groups. Many feel they set a dangerous precedent. To this SisterSupporter point out that the House of Commons currently has a large, one-mile buffer zone in which the freedom to protest has been curtailed. If MPs, behind their railings, walls and security guards can have a one mile buffer zone why can’t we afford vulnerable clinic users 100m? To be clear although we disagree with pro-life campaigners we don’t object to their right to protest generally; we campaign very specifically against the tactic of targeting people outside clinics.

We meet fortnightly to promote the campaign and stay in touch with the clinic to ensure good communication. The national petition for buffer zones at clinics has recently surpassed 10,000 signatures (the original petition got over 160,000 but the government can ignore anything on Change.org). We are aiming for 100,000 signatures by June (sign here- www.sistersupporter.co.uk/campaign). This is a long-running issue in Ealing and there are some other clinics in London experiencing the same issues; Stratford, Twickenham and Brixton to name a few.

If you live in West London and would like to support us you can follow us on facebook or join our mailing list (sign up at www.sistersupporter.co.uk).

If you are experiencing similar issues at a clinic near you and would like to talk about how to organise, feel free to get in touch – [email protected] sistersupporter.co.uk

9: 30am Saturday 16th of April Feminist Fightback, supported by a host of other organisations, are hosting a direct action in support of reproductive rights. Meet outside the Stratford East Picturehouse.See the statement here.