Doctors who help women end unwanted pregnancies are growing concerned for their own safety as anti-abortion groups step up protests outside clinics, a specialist in women's health has warned.
Tony Falconer, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, described the American-style protests outside abortion clinics as distressing and humiliating for those preparing to have a termination.
Falconer called the rising use of vigils and human chains at clinics an unwelcome and worrying development that could also deter younger doctors from opting to perform abortions. Falconer said colleagues were very anxious and worried about the provision of the service. "It doesn't help to have a sort of clamour [against] individual people who are trying to provide a difficult service for women in a period of their lives when they are in great difficulty."
While there is no evidence that doctors carrying out abortions have been threatened in Britain, some abortion doctors in the US were murdered, he said.
Asked if he was worried that doctors here could become a target too, Falconer said: "We don't have any evidence for that, but that could be a worry. It's obviously not as bad but it seems to be going down that line."
Falconer said that he wanted the requirement in the 1967 Abortion Act for two doctors to approve each abortion, to be altered to one doctor, to reduce the length of time women might have to wait for the procedure.
"One of the difficulties with termination of pregnancy is that sometimes the documentation, because it's two doctors, can introduce a slowing up of the provision," he said.
Marie Stopes International, Britain's biggest abortion provider, said staff at its centre sometimes called the police because protesters outside were "harassing" some of their clients.
A Marie Stopes spokeswoman said: "On what is already a difficult day [for the women], it's stressful for them to have to walk past sometimes shouting protesters, walk past tiny foetus models, or receive medically inaccurate leaflets on their way in to the centre.
"It can also oblige our staff to take time out from looking after the [patients] – for example, to call the police – on the occasions when protesters harass them, or [staff need] to escort them to and from the centre."
Anthony Ozimic, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said that neither their supporters nor those of other groups in the 40 Days For Life anti-abortion coalition, took part in activities that could make doctors feel threatened. "I have no evidence there's any sort of direct action or anything to intimidate or obstruct abortion doctors or abortion clinics. These are peaceful prayerful vigils that don't break any laws."
The row over anti-abortion groups' tactics comes a day before the release of annual statistics showing the numbers of terminations in England – which stand at about 200,000 for the last few years.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: "Doctors and nurses should be able to carry out their work in a safe and non-threatening environment, regardless of the kind of procedure.
"Having any kind of operation can be stressful and hospitals and clinics should do everything they can to ensure that patients always feel safe."
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