Abortion UK: will clinics get buffer zones in England and Wales? MP vote to stop ‘harassment’ explained
MPs have voted to offer greater protection to women attending abortion clinics, by preventing protesters from gathering within 150m of health centres.
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Under the proposed new law, harassing, obstructing, or confronting women and staff entering an abortion clinic or hospital would become a criminal offence. Protesters found guilty of breaching a zone, which will be in force for 150m around the clinic in question, could face up to six months in jail.
The amendment to the government’s Public Order Bill, which was put forward by Labour MP Stella Creasy to legislate for buffer zones, was yesterday (18 October) backed by MPs by 297 to 110. It still has to go through several other stages before becoming a law, including scrutiny in the House of Lords, but campaign groups are “delighted” that progress is being made.
Sister Supporter, a pro-choice, anti-harassment organisation that achieved the first local buffer zone outside a clinic in Ealing, London in 2018, has long been rallying for a “national solution” to this “national problem.” A spokesperson for the group told NationalWorld: “We could not be more elated at the news that MPs have voted for an amendment to the Public Order Bill that will end intimidation and harassment outside abortion clinics across England and Wales.
“This will end the postcode lottery, and ensure that women and pregnant people are able to access healthcare in dignity and privacy.”
NationalWorld previously spoke to women who told of the “traumatic” experience of trying to access a clinic while anti-abortion protesters are in the vicinity. Some have been called “murderers” or “abominations”, others have had people yell “mummy, don’t kill me!” at them, and many have had to approach clinics while the ground outside is scattered with graphic foetus models or leaflets containing misinformation about the links between abortion and cancer.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), an abortion and healthcare provider which reports that every year around 100,000 women visit a clinic targeted by protests, told NationalWorld is is “delighted” that MPs have voted in favour of a motion they have been campaigning for “for many, many years”.
Public affairs officer Molly Boydon said: “This is a win for abortion rights and will make a tangible difference to the lives of thousands of women across the UK. This legislation will end the harassment and intimidation of women as they enter abortion clinics and we’re grateful to all the MPs, from both sides of the house, who stood up and advocated for a woman’s right to access healthcare privately and safely.”
Louise McCudden, advocacy adviser at MSI Reproductive Choices, another abortion provider, added that the vote “marks a huge victory for reproductive rights.”
Some MPs opposing the bill’s amendment raised issues regarding the “right to protest”, while Catherine Robinson, spokesperson for anti-abortion group Right To Life UK said that if the amendment becomes law, “vital practical support provided by volunteers outside abortion clinics will be removed for women.”
But campaigners argued it only removes “harassment and intimidation”, and Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, insisted the change “would not stop free speech on abortion.” She instead told the House of Commons: “It simply says that you shouldn’t have a right to do that in the face of somebody – and very often these people are right up in front of people – at a point when they have made a decision.”
She continued: “There is a time and a place to have that conversation, but it is not when you are dealing with vulnerable women".
Former Prime Minister Theresa May and Leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt were among those backing the buffer zones, while Home Secretary Suella Braverman and fellow cabinet ministers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Kemi Badenoch voted against it. MPs were given a free vote on the issue due to it being a matter of conscience.
Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, told NationalWorld: “At a time where women’s reproductive rights are under attack globally, this is a crucial step in the right direction, and I am delighted and encouraged by this news. Abortions are healthcare, and everyone has the right to seek one without being harassed by groups seeking to deny them their bodily autonomy.”
Reid added however that it is vital to not become “complacent” in the fight to “protect and uphold our reproductive rights”, pointing out that abortion is still illegal in Great Britain and the government must work towards “full decriminalisation… [so that] no woman can be punished for seeking one.”
Similarly, Sister Supporter highlighted the need to support those campaigning for the same change in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as the amendment currently only applies in England and Wales. Gillian Mackay, MSP for Central Scotland, has however launched a private members’ bill which she hopes will ensure “no one has to face intimidation or harassment”. The bill will soon be making its way through the legislative process.