The UK government has said the issue of abortion clinic buffer zones “remains under review” as the debate heats up over abortion and the right to protest.
Pro-abortion politicians and organisations in the UK have been calling for a nationwide network of “buffer zones” to limit anti-abortion protests near abortion clinics.
On May 30, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH), which represents more than 14,000 UK doctors, issued a new position statement arguing that even instances of quiet protest, such as prayer, can be “intimidating.”
Dr. Asha Kasliwal, FSRH president, said: “The only way to ensure patients are able to access healthcare free of harassment and intimidation is the legal implementation of buffer zones around abortion clinics across the UK.”
Dr. Edward Morris, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), added: “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.”
In response, the UK Home Office said that the right to protest is a “vital part of a democratic society,” but it is “completely unacceptable that women accessing healthcare services should feel harassed or intimidated.”
“The police and local authorities have powers to restrict harmful protests and we expect them to take action in such cases,” said the spokeswoman.
“The issue of abortion buffer zones remains under review and we continue to monitor the prevalence of these protests with the welfare of women being at the centre of our consideration,” she added.
The Home Office has previously rejected the idea of implementing nationwide buffer zone legislation around abortion facilities.
In 2018, following an extensive review, the then-home secretary Sajid Javid decided that introducing protest-free areas outside clinics “would not be a proportionate response.”
His successor Priti Patel pledged in 2020 that the government would again review the rules around protests in the vicinity of abortion clinics.
Earlier this month, the Scottish government voiced support for the introduction of buffer zones.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on May 12 she “strongly” supports calls for buffer zones to be set up. She will chair an emergency summit next month, and said her government is now “actively considering” how to legislate on the issue.
The Right to Protest
On May 27, a cross-party group of MPs proposed an amendment to the Public Order Bill to introduce buffer zones around clinics, which is expected to be debated in June.
In a debate in the House of Commons on May 23, Kit Malthouse, the minister for crime and policing, questioned the pro-abortion MPs’ support for clamping down on anti-abortion protests when they clearly backed protests for other causes.
He was “honestly and genuinely perplexed by the argument about buffer zones,” said Malthouse, adding: “I understand the sensitivity in that particular situation, but why is it that we object to and are willing to restrict that particular form of protest, but not others?”
He asked the MPs whether they were “possibly guilty of wanting to ban only protests” with which they do not agree.
The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), a British pro-life campaigning and educational organisation, said pro-abortion MPs have been trying to “demonise people who take part in pro-life vigils” and “making wild accusations with no basis in fact.”
Alithea Williams, SPUC’s public policy manager, said: “That they want to ban people witnessing quietly outside clinics, and often offering a lifeline to women who want to keep their baby, shows that they cannot tolerate any opposition to the abortion narrative.”
She echoed Malthouse’s comments on the inconsistencies in the pro-abortion politicians’ stance on the right to protest, saying: “Clearly their defence of the right to protest does not extend to pro-lifers.”
She added: “We call on the government to uphold the rights of pro-life people to peacefully witness against the tragedy of abortion, and we will be vigilant in opposing any moves to introduce buffer zones through this or any other bill.”
PA Media contributed to this report.