'Americanized' anti-abortion protests are on the rise in the UK. But a fight back has begun

According to activists, women trying to access reproductive health services in Manchester face some of the worst anti-abortion harassment ever seen in the UK.

London (CNN)Monika Neall was standing outside an abortion clinic in Manchester when she saw a woman in her mid-20s dart out the doors. The woman moved towards a parked car, then suddenly froze.

On the ground nearby lay plastic fetus models, candles and images of mothers gazing adoringly at babies. Panicking, she caught Neall's eye. "That's my car," she said, her voice starting to crack.
Most Saturday mornings, Neall puts on a pink vest and joins a small group of women from the volunteer organization Sister Supporter. They stand outside the Marie Stopes clinic in the northern English city to oppose the anti-abortion protests that are held there weekly.
    On this particular weekend, Neall said, the anti-abortion protesters had blocked in the woman's car with their signs. "She was quite distressed and just clearly had no idea what to do about it at all," she told CNN.
    Neall said she made sure that the protesters removed their placards, so the woman could get to her vehicle without being approached.
    "We will be a physical buffer zone between the protesters on the front door of the clinic, so that if women need support, or even if they just need to see that somebody else is there, countering the message," Neall said.
    Anti-abortion activists have been holding "vigils" outside clinics in several UK cities.
    According to activists, women trying to access reproductive health services in Manchester face some of the worst anti-abortion harassment ever seen in the UK.
    "Over the past 14 years, anti-abortion gatherings outside the (Manchester) center, in particular, have been escalating in frequency and size and there has been an escalation in the harassing behavior as well," Franki Appleton, advocacy and public affairs adviser for Marie Stopes UK, told CNN.
    "We've seen an increase in, I suppose you could describe it as Americanized tactics," she added.
    The methods used by protesters vary. "There was a woman who used to sit on the front step of the clinic and just breastfeed her baby as a form of intimidation," Sister Supporter volunteer Beth Redmond told CNN.
    Appleton said that the protests can include so-called "pavement counseling," when the demonstrators intercept people trying to enter the clinic and try to dissuade them from attending appointments.
    Michael Freeley, a local representative from international anti-abortion group 40 Days for Life, told CNN that the group's main focus in its Manchester protests was "quietly praying outside the clinic for the mothers and the children and for the staff."
    "Sometimes, some volunteers might approach someone going into the clinic and offer them a leaflet with some information on helplines where they could get help on adoption or just help with the pregnancy ... to provide other options," he added.
    The group 40 Days for Life was originally started in Texas in 2004, but it now organizes "vigils" in countries in Europe, Africa and South America.
    Freeley insisted that members of his group did not harass women outside the clinics.

    Exclusion zones

    Abortion has been legal in England, Wales and Scotland since 1967, but some groups still oppose the procedure. While some of the protests are associated with international anti-abortion movements, other groups are locally run, many of them linked to churches nearby.
    To counter the protests, Sister Supporter is campaigning for an exclusion zone -- a public spaces protection order (PSPO) -- around the clinic. On June 20, a Manchester City Council committee supported the petition and recommended a formal consultation over the introduction of a PSPO.
    The council found that "many protesters use deliberately disturbing and graphic images and models, including those purporting to be of dismembered fetuses" and that leaflets including "misleading information" had been distributed.
    The committee also noted that protesters often follow, record and question women as they enter or leave abortion centers in the city.