Aston informs anti-abortion activism policy debate

Aston informs policy debate on the impact of anti-abortion activism, resulting in the introduction of activism-free ‘buffer zones’

Why is this research needed?  

Anti-abortion activism are the practices advocating against the legality of abortion. This can include petitions, lobbying of government ministers and public demonstrations in the form of picketing and protesting.

Since 2014, there has been growing concern about the impact of anti-abortion activism specifically those targeting abortion clinics. This presence of anti-abortion activists, aiming to discourage women from having abortions, is often known to cause distress and anxiety for the women involved.

Without sufficient supporting research and evidence, it was unclear what measures could be put in place to protect the rights of women to a safe and legal abortion.

The research team

Research into the lasting impact of anti-abortion activism has been led by a team of academics at Aston University including Dr Pam Lowe, Dr Sarah-Jane Page and Dr Graeme Hayes.

Dr Lowe, widely recognised as a leading expert on UK anti-abortion activism, is a senior lecturer in Sociology and Policy. Her research interests include women’s reproductive and sexual health, with a particular focus on pregnancy, abortion and early parenting. Dr Page is a lecturer is Sociology and Policy with an interest in religion and sexuality. Dr Hayes is a reader in Sociology and Policy with an interest in social movements, protest strategies, and developing ideas of activist traditions. All academics form part of the Centre for Critical Inquiry into Society and Culture (CCISC) at Aston.

The research process

The research conducted during this project looked at the actions of major UK anti-abortion activists, a movement that initially gained very little media attention.

Through the examination of various media publications, events and public engagement, the team has been able to understand the impact anti-abortion activities outside clinics’ have on women seeking the clinics services, as well as the specific religious motivations behind some of these activists.

By bringing together understandings from the sociologies of reproductive health and religion, the team explained in depth some of the motivations of anti-abortion activists and the reasons why the impact they have on women is extremely different to the one that they intended.

The researchers theorise this anti-abortion activity as a specific form of street harassment that women cannot escape or predict the outcome of. Activist groups outside clinics also draw public attention to the clinic, making private abortion decisions into a public spectacle.

The research formed part of five publications and articles which were covered widely in the media on outlets such as BBC news, The Daily Telegraph and Huffington Post. To increase public awareness, Dr Lowe wrote for a number of media outlets which have both local and national audiences. These include the New Statesman, The Conversation and Birmingham Post. In addition, Dr Lowe has appeared on Sky News, BBC Victoria Derbyshire Show and BBC Newsnight as well as several local radio stations. This specific media coverage intended to educate and improve general public understandings of the issues.

Alongside media engagement, Dr Lowe had the opportunity to address a public meeting on Abortion Rights held in 2016 in Westminster. She delivered a talk which was aimed at ‘preventing harassment and putting pressure where power lies’ to numerous attendees including parliamentarians.


The research of this project has had a tangible impact in allowing greater measures to be put into place to protect women seeking to have an abortion.

Firstly, the underpinning research provided a strong evidence base that informed the policy, political and public debate on these anti-abortion activities. This was done through raising awareness and gathering evidence of the experiences of different social actors.

Evidence from the research has then been used directly by many abortion service providers, campaigning groups and politicians. These include: BPAS, Abortion Rights Cardiff, Birmingham Abortion Rights and Pro-Choice Nottingham. In addition to local campaigning groups, advice and evidence has been given directly to local councillors and politicians and a number of campaign groups have used this evidence to pressurise MPs to stop the harassment of women.

As a result, two ‘bufferzones’ were developed to protect women. These zones are no-protest areas which prevents activists from standing directly outside specific abortion service providers. Thereby allowing women to undertake abortions without street harassment. Public Space Protection Orders (PSPO) were also created by local councils to restrict activities outside of clinics, as a result of Sister Supporter activism.

The research continues to be spread by BPAS through their ‘Back-Off’ campaign materials.

Why is this research relevant today?

More recently in 2018, Ireland held a referendum to end the constitutional ban on abortion which was set out in the 8th amendment. Following their new abortion services in early 2019, anti-abortion activists groups quickly began to be active outside of clinics.

The research in this project has provided strong evidence for successful lobbying for abortion and women’s rights groups. This has led to the Irish government stating its new intentions to instigate buffer zones, an example of the impact this research continues to have.

Evidence-based policy debate and formulation, as demonstrated in this example, confirms the value of high quality social inquiry and engagement as an agent of change.