'What do they know about pregnancies?': Imogen Edwards-Jones finds out how staff at an abortion clinic cope with harassment and vandalism by pro-life campaigners

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A POLICE car was parked outside the Marie Stopes abortion clinic in Buckhurst Hill, Essex. 'They come round to see if we are OK whether we call them or not,' Liz Davies, the manager, says. 'With all the pro-life American campaigners over here at the moment, we can't be too careful.'

Ms Davies has worked for the Marie Stopes organisation for eight years, managing the Buckhurst Hill clinic for a year, and was previously sister-in-charge of a clinic in Cricklewood, north London. 'I am obviously pro-choice, and I strongly believe that it is a woman's choice,' she says.

'Having made that decision, it is up to us to give the woman the best possible care and attention, to make what is probably the hardest decision that she will make in her life happen as efficiently as possible with minimum fuss and delay.'

Ms Davies has little time for the protesterswho picket the clinic every Tuesday and Saturday. 'They know our admission times and when we are at our busiest. They stand outside the clinic hurling abuse at the extremely vulnerable women who are coming inside. They call the women and the staff 'murderers' and wave placards with pictures of dead babies, dismembered babies, blackened babies - all supposedly aborted foetuses when they so obviously aren't'

She says staff have been harassed at the clinic and, occasionally, when the campaigners have managed to find out their addresses, at home.

Ms Davies claims that when she worked at Cricklewood campaigners would burst into the clinic, posing as women seeking terminations. They would destroy equipment, pour bleach around the theatre, break instruments, hand out prayer sheets and pray at the beds of women in the recovery room. They also chained themselves to beds in the operating theatre.

'All the clinics have bolt-cutters as standard issue to cut these people free,' she says. 'But they have never stopped us operating or carrying out abortions. They have managed to distress some clients so much that they can't go through with it that day, but they have almost always returned at another, more pleasant time.'

Pro-lifers can be divided into several groups, she says. 'Some of them have had abortions and bitterly regretted them but have had no objective counselling. So they turn to campaigning and, having exercised their own right to choice, they stop others.

'Some are deeply religious, but it's difficult to call them Christians because they show no compassion or understanding of their fellows. They do not attempt to see anyone else's point of view.'

Mary, who declined to give her full name, has been sister-in-charge of the clinic since it was acquired from the National Health Service by Marie Stopes last July. Previously she worked as a deputy matron in the National Health Service. She is a Catholic but is pro-choice. 'Sometimes I just stare at these men and want to shake them and say, 'What do you know about babies and pregnancy?' Especially celibate priests. There is such hypocrisy with religion - it has started wars and caused so much unhappiness - that I discount its argument.

'I lost a colleague after she had a backstreet abortion before the Abortion Act in 1967. Until then I had not really thought about the issue, but then I became pro-choice. I think that Act was the best thing that ever happened to women.'

Mary says she does not find her job morally disturbing. 'I don't think of it as a foetus or baby or anything like that. All I see are miserable, frightened women who leave relieved and are not suicidal any more.'

'We can't deny that we are destroying a life, because we are,' Ms Davies says. 'But an unwanted pregnancy destroys two lives. I believe that the quality of the mother's life is more important than an unborn foetus's'

Both women believe that the American protesters should return home. 'They have a damn cheek. They should stay in their own country and not come over here and impose their opinions on anybody,' Mary says. She believes the pro-life campaign will only strengthen the resolve of those in favour of legal terminations.

'All you have to do is look at the sad women who have come to our clinic in Romania. They are crippled with infertility because of damaged cervixes; the situation is desperate.

'Women will always get abortions if they need them; the question is, will they die in the process? There is no method of contraception that is 100 per cent sure. The only sure way is abstinence, but you can't tell people to abstain from warmth and comfort,' she says.

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