We must introduce buffer zones to stop the harassment of women outside abortion clinics
Images of women having to walk past people holding out plastic babies and telling them they’re murderers do not belong in England.
Today we are bringing forward an amendment the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that aims to put a stop the harassment of women outside abortion clinics.
It’s a topic that many people we speak to are surprised by. It happens in America – they think – but surely not over here. That 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. This is why we’re working to introduce buffer zones around clinics – areas of 150 metres from the clinic entrance where harassment isn’t allowed.
Leaflets are given out containing false medical information such as that abortion gives you breast cancer and causes child abuse
The tactics vary – they can include the display of graphic images of dismembered foetuses, filming women and staff members, following women down the street, and sprinkling sites with holy water. Leaflets are given out containing false medical information such as that abortion gives you breast cancer and causes child abuse, and recently these groups have been handing out adverts for dangerous and unproven medication to ‘reverse’ an abortion. This activity lasts for hours at a time over many months or years.
No matter the activity, women – as you might expect – report feeling harassed, alarmed, and distressed.
“She told me that I should let God decide – that it will torture me for the rest of my life and don’t let them do it. She told me her daughter couldn’t have kids and I’m wrong for killing a baby…” Said one woman accessing abortion care in Liverpool earlier this year.
“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…” said another in Birmingham.
For too many women and the doctors, nurses, and midwives who care for them – this harassment is the reality of accessing what should be a confidential medical service protected by the law.
Because that’s the point here – this issue isn’t about abortion. Regardless of your personal opinion, the law of the land is that we respect a woman’s right to make the choice to end a pregnancy. These groups aren’t trying to change that law – they’re not protesting parliament or trying to make their case to MPs like us. They are targeting individual, vulnerable women who have no choice but to pass them on their way to access a service to which they’re legally entitled.
The reality is that existing law isn’t enough to deal with organised harassment in this way. The only piece of law that has been effective has been to introduce local buffer zones. There are three across England and Wales – three compared to the 43 clinics affected. They create a postcode lottery of protection for women, and when routinely challenged by well-funded international anti-abortion groups, they cost councils more than they can afford to introduce and uphold in court.
But most importantly, relying on councils to address this issue misses the bigger picture. Clinics aren’t targeted because of something that happens locally. Women are targeted because of the rights they have and the decisions they make.
It’s time that government recognised this for the campaign of harassment it is, and supported our amendment to stop it.
Rupa Huq is the Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton. Bernard Jenkin is the Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.