‘Abortion harassment is a national problem’: Plans to introduce ‘buffer zone’ laws to stop abuse outside clinics

‘Images of women having to walk past people holding out plastic babies and telling them they’re murderers do not belong in England’

Cross-party MPs want to make 'buffer zones' outside of abortion clinics in the UK after a successful trial in Ealing - but opposers say it clamps down on free speech.
Cross-party MPs want to make 'buffer zones' outside of abortion clinics in the UK after a successful trial in Ealing - but opposers say it clamps down on free speech.

MPs want it to be an offence for campaigners harassing women outside abortion clinics in England and Wales.

Cross-party MPs are hoping to introduce ‘buffer zones’ to protect staff and vulnerable women being abused directly outside of clinics.

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In these zones, certain activities would not be able to take place – including filming, harassment and intimidation.

It also means attempting to change women’s minds outside the clinic and advertising dangerous and unproven medication would also be clamped down on.

However, this would not have any impact on anti-abortion activity or campaigns taking place anywhere else.

In 2018, following a government consultation, the-then Home Secretary Sajid Javid said introducing protest-free areas outside clinics to prevent harassment of patients “would not be a proportionate response”.

Some 43 clinics and hospitals across England and Wales have seen anti-abortion activity since then.

Half of women targeted by anti-abortion groups

MPs Dr Rupa Huq (Labour) and Sir Bernard Jenkin (Conservative) put forward an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill to put a stop to this kind of harassment on 5 July.

But Huq did not have time to speak in the Commons due to time constraints.

She is now hoping to bring a similar amendment to another bill later this year.

The amendment would have made anti-abortion activity taking place within 150 metres of a clinic an offence – with individuals facing up to six months in prison or a fine in the first instance.

Huq attempted to get the issue into legislation last year but a bill she introduced did not progress.

She said that it is high time that the UK followed Canada, Australia and France by making buffer zones a right for all women no matter where they live so this medical procedure can be accessed free of intimidation.

She added: “It’s a topic that many people we speak to are surprised by. It happens in America – they think – but surely not over here.

“Those images of women having to walk past people holding out plastic babies and telling them they’re murderers just don’t belong in England.

“But this is the reality for the more than 100,000 women a year who have to attend a clinic targeted by these anti-abortion groups.

“These clinics are busy – so one protest, no matter how small it may seem from Westminster - has the power to intimidate hundreds or thousands of women.”

In 2019, more than 100,000 women had to attend an abortion clinic which had been targeted by anti-abortion groups, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) reported.

Huq added: “One in four women that year attended a clinic with daily or weekly protests, making it likely they would encounter them. That’s more than half of everyone who has an abortion.

“Home Secretary Priti Patel has spoken about protecting vulnerable women and girls multiple times. Now is the chance to do something about it.”

Harassment outside of clinics has included displaying graphic images of dismembered foetuses, large marches outside clinics and sprinkling sites with holy water.

One client told BPAS - who is supporting the amendment: “Two men were waiting outside the clinic and approaching any women who entered and trying to give them anti-abortion leaflets.

“I cried in the car – it was already a horrible day and the thought of being harassed for my decision was too much for me. I felt threatened and intimidated.”

Speaking in the House of Commons on 5 July, Sally-Anne Hart (Conservative) said censorship zones go against people expressing their views and urged members to reject this motion as Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) legislation exists. PSPO laws prohibit specific things being done in restricted areas.

She said: “While I personally found it somewhat offensive and lacking in compassion for people to gather outside an abortion clinic where women should be given space when accessing an abortion, what I find offensive might be different to what other people find offensive.

“If we ban speech or assembly on the likelihood of causing offence we will have to ban far more than demonstrating outside of abortion clinics.”

Huq did not have time to speak in the Commons on 5 July due to time constraints - but she is hoping to table a similar amendment to another bill later this year.

‘Government needs to introduce national legislation’

Sister Supporter is a pro-choice anti-harassment group, which was set up in 2015.

After three years of campaigning, they secured the UK's first ever buffer zone around an abortion clinic in Ealing, London, to prevent campaigning within 100 metres.

Now, they are campaigning for buffer zones to be implemented in national legislation.

A spokeswoman said: "Sister Supporter fully supports the amendment to introduce national buffer zone legislation.

“We are extremely proud of securing the UK's first ever buffer zones, it is clear that they are extremely effective in ending harassment, however these local Public Space Protection Order-based buffer zones are not a long term solution.

“They are time consuming and costly for local councils and expire after three years.

“Abortion clinic harassment is a national problem in need of a national solution.

“The Government urgently needs to introduce national legislation to protect clinic users and staff from intimidation and harassment and end the 'postcode lottery' that currently exists. "

Mara Clarke, founder of the Abortion Support Network, added that women and pregnant people should be able to walk from the pavement to a health care facility without having to run a gauntlet.

She said: “Whether those people are engaged in prayer, or pushing rosaries or plastic foetuses into the hands of women who do not want them, or more aggressively calling people murderers or passing out leaflets with medical misinformation – it’s not okay.

“It also presumes that someone has simply turned up to the clinic on a whim, when I guarantee you every person who has an abortion has first considered their options, then booked an appointment, and then waited for the appointment date to arrive.

“It’s ludicrous to think someone’s mind will be changed by a stranger accosting them on the sidewalk.”