02 July 2021
A cross-party group of MPs have tabled an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill (PCSC) on buffer zones outside abortion clinics to prevent harassment towards vulnerable clients and members of staff. The bill is due to be debated and voted on this Monday 5th July.
The amendment, led by Dr Rupa Huq MP and Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, would enable women to access, and healthcare professionals to provide, a lawful, confidential health service free from intimidation.
Buffer zones are an area where certain activities cannot take place – including filming of women accessing services, harassment and intimidation, stopping women in an attempt to change their mind about accessing services, and advertising dangerous and unproven medication. This would stop activity taking place directly outside clinics, but not have any impact on anti-abortion activity or campaigns taking place anywhere else.
In 2019 (the last year for which information is available) more than 100,000 women had to attend an abortion clinic which had been targeted by these groups. This amounts to 43 clinics and hospitals – sites which treat thousands of women a year. Even during the pandemic, clinic harassment has continued – despite lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings, and the introduction of telemedicine. Harassment outside of clinics includes displaying graphic images of dismembered foetuses, large marches gathering outside the clinic, filming women and staff members, following women down the street, sprinkling sites with holy water, and large gatherings of people who sing hymns and recite dedicated anti-abortion prayers loudly enough to be heard inside clinics.
Accounts from service users and BPAS staff affected by this harassment include:
“The protester was stood by the entrance with a banner. My daughter is autistic and this procedure is stressful and traumatic – and when she realised they were outside it caused her to have a panic attack…” Client’s mother, Bournemouth, June 2021
“My partner was waiting in the car and he had one woman staring at him and walking around his car whilst showing him a cross. Both my children (both under 4) were in the car waiting with my partner… I felt uncomfortable walking out of the clinic knowing they were there.” Client, Bournemouth, December 2020
“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…” Client, Birmingham South, December 2020
“BPAS Taunton has experienced first-hand problematic protesting which has involved the use of offensive language towards staff and clients, whilst using amplifying equipment and blocking access to pathways. Clients that have attended our clinic have felt harassed, embarrassed and distressed even to the extent where they have cancelled their treatment appointment and re-booked at another clinic to alleviate further distress and anxiety.” Karen Edwards, Treatment Unit Manager, at BPAS Taunton
“Staff, alongside clients, have felt judged and intimidated by their presence. They have at times told staff that what they do is evil and that we should find alternative work. Their presence on the pathway outside of the clinic is obstructive causing staff and passer-by’s to often walk in the road to get by or get into the clinic. They also add to the stress and anxiety staff feel coming into work and in anticipation of what our clients may be subject to.” Katherine Corbett, Client Care Manager at BPAS Merseyside
Clinic harassment has an impact disproportionate to the behaviour involved – largely because of the captive nature of their audience (women and providers have to walk past them to enter or leave the clinic), the confidential nature of medical care, and the heightened emotional state of many clients.
As a result, existing and proposed laws that are designed to deal with persistent harassment, public disorder, and protest are not applicable. Police at local level report being unable to address existing problems owing to a lack of legislation under which they could charge individuals. In many cases they recognise the impact that they have on women accessing services, but are unable to take action.
Charities, women’s rights organisations, and medical bodies are calling on MPs to support New Clause 42 to provide a national solution to protect vulnerable women and clinic staff from of harassment and intimidation. The amendment would establish “buffer zone” with a boundary which is 150 metres from any part of an abortion clinic or any access point to any building that contains an abortion clinic. A person guilty of an offence under the amendment is liable to up to 6 months imprisonment, a fine, or both.
Commenting on the amendment:
Clare Murphy, Chief Executive of BPAS, said
“At BPAS we know the impact that anti-choice harassment and intimidation outside clinics has on both clients and the staff that treat them. Nobody deserves to endure this kind of distress as they try to access medical care.
“The current law is incomplete, ineffective, and allows anti-abortion extremists to impinge on women’s access to reproductive healthcare. Since 2019, 43 different sites across the UK have been targeted by the anti-choice movement. We ask the government how many women have to suffer this cruelty before they act?
“It’s time for new national legislation to protect women whilst they access confidential medical treatment and support. BPAS urge MPs to listen to the voices of women, medical bodies, and women’s rights organisations, and support the amendment to this bill.”
Dr Rupa Huq, MP for Ealing who is leading on the amendment in parliament, said:
“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 or intimidation.
“In 2019 more than 100,000 women had to attend a clinic that had been targeted for. That represents more than half of all those who had an abortion that year. Priti Patel has spoken about protecting vulnerable women and girls multiple times. Now is the chance for the Home Secretary to actually do something about it.”
Dr Jonathan Lord, MSI UK’s Medical Director, said:
“It is completely unacceptable that in 2021 the right to access an abortion without fear of harassment should depend upon your postcode. Many who are confronted by anti-abortion groups outside our clinics feel that their privacy has been violated at a time and place when they were most vulnerable.
“Hounding people while they try to access medical care should quite simply be against the law. It’s time for the government to stand up to the tiny but loud minority of anti-abortion bullies and stand with us and provide national legislation to protect patients and NHS staff in abortion clinics.”
Amy Gibbs, Chief Executive of Birthrights, said “Buffer zones around abortion clinics are desperately needed to protect women and families’ rights to privacy and dignity whilst they are accessing reproductive healthcare. No one should face intimidation and harassment when seeking or providing care.”
For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07881 265 276
BPAS is a charity which sees over 100,000 women a year for reproductive healthcare services including pregnancy counselling, abortion care, miscarriage management and contraception at clinics across Great Britain. It supports and advocates for reproductive choice. BPAS also runs the Centre for Reproductive Research and Communication, which seeks to develop and deliver a research agenda that furthers women’s access to evidence-based reproductive healthcare, driven by an understanding of women’s perspectives and needs. You can find out more here: https://www.bpas.org/get-involved/centre-for-reproductive-research-communication/
BPAS will be launching a not-for-profit fertility service in 2021 to provide ethical, evidence-based, person-centred care that supports patients. We intend to only charge what it costs to provide a safe, high-quality, and accessible service to patients who may be unable to access NHS-funded care.