UK MPs Back Proposals to Introduce Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones

UK MPs Back Proposals to Introduce Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones
Bernadette 'Bernie' Smyth (L), founder of pro-life campaign group Precious Life, stands with anti-abortion activists holding placards outside Belfast High Court, on Jan. 30, 2019. (Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images)
Owen Evans

UK MPs have supported proposals to make anti-abortion protests and vigils around clinics a criminal offence in England and Wales.

An amendment to the Public Order Bill to introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics has been backed by a cross-party group of MPs.

The legislation was proposed by the left-wing Labour MP Stella Creasy.

A “buffer zone” means an area which is within a boundary of 150 metres from any part of an abortion clinic or any access point to any building or site that contains an abortion clinic.

If passed, anyone within the buffer zone seeking to influence a woman's decision to attend abortion services could face criminal charges and up to six months in jail for a first offence, or two years for further offences.

The Conservative government’s bill was designed to strengthen police powers against disruptive tactics by climate activists such as Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, and Insulate Britain.

'Seeking to Influence'

Creasy claimed that the change would “not stop free speech on abortion."

She told the Commons on Tuesday, “It simply says that you shouldn’t have a right to do that in the face of somebody, and very often these people are right up in front of people, at a point when they have made a decision.”

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, Birmingham campaign director for the international anti-abortion Christian organisation 40 Days For Life, told The Epoch Times that it is important that "other options are presented to women."

"We know in Birmingham that well over 100 women have accepted our help," she said.

"If I read what most media outlets write about us I would want us banned as well," she added. "The language is so loaded. There's no resemblance to what my campaign is at all," said Vaughan-Spruce.

 Labour MP Stella Creasy holds her baby daughter in the House of Commons in London as she contributes to a debate. (House of Commons/PA)
Labour MP Stella Creasy holds her baby daughter in the House of Commons in London as she contributes to a debate. (House of Commons/PA)

'Intolerant of Any Opinion'

Vaughan-Spruce said that in her town they have two or three people who stand outside the abortion centre praying "audibly but quietly."

"When a woman goes to the abortion centre, one of the people would give them a leaflet and ask if they would like help. If she declines or ignores it, that's the end of the conversation," she added.

"For those that do want help, there are all sorts of help with care, financial help with accommodation, babysitting, whatever their needs may be," she said.

"Sadly I think that people have become very intolerant of any opinion which differs from theirs," said Vaughan-Spruce.

In 2018, then-Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, rejected a nationwide ban on vigils at abortion clinics, saying that "predominantly, anti-abortion activities are more passive in nature” and that buffer zones “would not be a proportionate response” to claims of harassment.

“The main activities reported to us that take place during protests include praying, displaying banners, and handing out leaflets. There were relatively few reports of the more aggressive activities described,” said Javid (pdf).

Right To Life UK spokesperson Catherine Robinson told The Epoch Times by email that introducing “censorship zones would have a severe negative impact for women who are unsure, or worse, being pressured into having an abortion, denying them the ability to access help from peaceful pro-life volunteers when they need it most.”

“Censorship zones infringe on free speech, and it is not just pro-life advocates who oppose them,” said Robinson.

She said that a number of prominent human rights groups and campaigners oppose the introduction of buffer zones, such as the LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell, the Manifesto Club, Big Brother Watch, Index on Censorship, and the Freedom Association.

Robinson said that in 2021, a similar amendment was brought forward by the Labour MP Rupa Huq to a government bill, but for that amendment, Conservative MPs were instructed against it.

“If the government had done the same today, and whipped against this amendment, it is very unlikely that it would have passed,” she said.

'Clinic Harassment'

Katherine O’Brien, associate director of communications and campaigns at BPAS, the UK's leading abortion care service, told The Epoch Times by email that the existing laws "do not deal with anti-abortion clinic protests effectively, unfortunately."

BPAS claims that some groups have called women "murderers," and have hung baby clothing around clinic entrances.

"Clinic harassment has an impact disproportionate to the behaviour involved, largely because of the lack of ability to avoid the activity while women and providers have to walk past them to access the clinic, the confidential nature of medical care, and the heightened emotional state of many clients. As a result, existing laws that are designed to deal with persistent harassment, public disorder, and protest are not sufficient to address the issue," she said.

She said that some councils have implemented Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) to create buffer zones around clinics, a tool that enables local authorities to prevent certain anti-social activity taking place in an area.

"Out of the 50 clinics that have been targeted in the last four years, only five are protected by a PSPO. Two of these were only introduced in the last month," she added.

She said that PSPOs are not a permanent solution.

"They create a postcode lottery where many other women are unable to access care without harassment. They are expensive to introduce and uphold in court, making councils less likely to risk their introduction. And the evidence bar excludes clinics from protection because varying tactics and lack of willingness to report can make local action difficult," said O’Brien.

The Public Order Bill has several stages to clear before becoming law and will undergo further scrutiny in the House of Lords at a later date.

PA Media contributed to this report.