Medical leaders have launched an urgent new call for buffer zones to be set up around all abortion clinics across the UK. A buffer zone is a perimeter or area around an abortion clinic that's intended to legally limit how close anti-abortion campaigners can get to those who need to access the service.
The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) has said that it's vital to have a nationwide network of legally-protected spaces to protect patients from harassment. In their new statement even instances of "quiet protest", for example prayer, are noted to be "intimidating" and that the distribution of false information can be dangerous for patients.
"Abortion care is an essential sexual and reproductive health service, and buffer zones must be introduced to ensure that the privacy and rights of those who access these services are respected," commented Dr Edward Morris, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG). “The harassment and ongoing intimidation of women and staff outside of abortion clinics is unacceptable and would not be tolerated for any other healthcare service.”
In April 2018, a clinic in Ealing in west London became the first in the UK to get a buffer zone. After tireless campaigning from pro-choice group Sister Supporter, Ealing Council issued an order to protect women from “intimidation, harassment and distress” outside the Marie Stopes clinic (now MSI Reproductive Choices).
"We've seen harrowing accounts of women being told to ‘pray so you don’t end up back here’, called ‘murderer’ and told to ‘change your lifestyle’," said Eve Veglio-White, from Sister Supporter. "Perhaps even more disturbing are the people (often men) calling women ‘Mum’ when they enter and, even more cruelly, when they leave."
Pro-choice campaigners hoped these protected spaces outside abortion clinics would become the norm, but sadly there's only been two more buffer zones created in the UK since then – one in Richmond in London, and one in Manchester.
But FSRH have said that these areas – known as Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) – aren't designed especially for the purpose of protecting those trying to access abortion, and they depend on decisions made by local councils, plus they can be expensive, therefore producing a postcode lottery.
Since 2018, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) have said that 50 new clinics have been targeted by anti-abortion protesters in England and Wales.
Clare Murphy, BPAS chief executive, said: “Anti-choice groups routinely follow women and healthcare professionals as they enter and leave clinics, display graphic banners of dismembered foetuses, and tell women that if they terminate a pregnancy, they risk breast cancer and long-term mental illness. We ask the Government, how many women have to suffer this cruelty before they act?”
The FSRH represents more than 14,000 doctors, and its president Dr Asha Kasliwal said harassment and intimidation outside clinics affected not just patients but also staff who work at the abortion clinics, causing "great distress." "The only way to ensure patients are able to access healthcare free of harassment and intimidation is the legal implementation of buffer zones," she commented.
Following a review, the idea of buffer zones in England and Wales was rejected by the government back in 2018, then in 2020 Home Secretary Priti Patel promised that the government would review the rules around protests in the areas surrounding abortion clinics.
Next month, Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon is expected to chair an emergency summit on buffer zones, commenting that Scottish Government is now "actively considering" how they can legislate on the issue. Now the government says it's reviewing the issue in England and Wales with an amendment to the Public Order Bill to introduce protest-free areas – the issue has been tabled by MPs and is expected to be debated in June.
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