Calls for review of rejected ‘buffer zones’ plan outside abortion clinics

Charities and medical bodies have called on the Home Secretary to bring in buffer zones outside abortion clinics.

British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), writing on behalf of a score of groups, called on Priti Patel to review a decision to reject the idea made by her predecessor Sajid Javid in September last year.

Introducing protest-free areas outside clinics to prevent harassment of patients “would not be a proportionate response”, he said.

Although the review received evidence of harassment and damaging behaviour – such as the handing out of model foetuses, displaying graphic images and blocking patients’ paths – he said this was not “the norm”.

Groups wrote to Ms Patel over claims evidence was “suppressed” in a “flawed consultation” before the decision was made.

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws suggest the process was a “foregone conclusion”, BPAS claims, saying the report “underplays and misrepresents” the experiences of clinic staff and women even though a database of testimony from 1,300 people was received.

The experience of staff is not “mentioned at all” in the report and there is a lack of “critical evaluation” of evidence from protesters, the group claims.

Some 34 clinics are said to have since experienced “anti-abortion activity”, including five which were never targeted before, the group added.

The letter, signed by 30 organisations and individuals, said: “Based on these shortcomings in the evidence provided to the minister, we would like to invite you as the new Home Secretary to ask for a full review of the evidence provided and to look again at the possibility of introducing national buffer zones to put a stop to protests at the clinic gate.

“Ultimately, this is not a question about abortion, but about the ability of women to access legal and essential medical care without fear of harassment or intimidation.”

After the decision last year, campaigners accused the Government of treating thousands of women as “acceptable collateral damage”.

Mr Javid’s announcement was also condemned by politicians, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who called it a “shocking failure to protect women” and urged him to reverse it.

The review received more than 2,500 responses from abortion service providers, abortion service clients, anti-abortion demonstrators, police forces and local authorities.

Some 36 hospitals and clinics in England and Wales reported demonstrations outside their facilities. Of these, a small number reported aggressive activity, the Home Office said.

Shortly after the decision, the Government faced calls to create protest-free “safe zones” outside all abortion clinics after the Court of Appeal rejected a challenge against the first in the UK.

Three leading judges dismissed an appeal against an earlier ruling that restrictions imposed by Ealing Council in west London on protests outside a Marie Stopes clinic were “justified”.

The authority was the first to create a buffer zone in April 2018 following demonstrations.

It imposed the public spaces protection order (PSPO) following reports of “intimidation, harassment and distress” for women using the facility in Mattock Lane, Ealing.

Richard Bentley, Marie Stopes UK’s managing director, echoed the calls for Ms Patel to reconsider the decision, asking her to “legislate urgently to create safe access zones around every clinic in the UK”.

While Sally O’Brien, the operations manager at its centre in west London, said learning evidence provided was “completely ignored” felt like an “utter betrayal”.

The Home Office did not say whether Ms Patel would reconsider the matter, but a spokesman said: “This is a sensitive and complex issue, which is why we conducted an in-depth review of protests outside abortion clinics.

“The right to protest is a vital part of a democratic society, but it is completely unacceptable that anyone should feel harassed or intimidated.

“We expect the police to take a firm stance against protesters who significantly disrupt the lives of others and use the full force of the law.

“There are already powers in place for police to restrict harmful protest activity.”

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