By Richard Bentley, Managing Director for Marie Stopes UK
Today’s judgment in the Court of Appeal to uphold the UK’s first ever abortion Safe Zone around our clinic in West London, is a victory for common sense, compassion and women’s right to make decisions about their own bodies free from harassment.
We are a firmly pro-choice nation, but sadly, a small minority of people believe otherwise and would like to see the country take a backwards step on abortion. These anti-abortion groups who gather outside clinics have a detrimental impact on women, our team members and residents, and whether their behaviour is subtle or overt, it is a form of discrimination against women and targeted street harassment.
Before Ealing Council voted unanimously last year to introduce a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) around our Ealing clinic, anti-choice protestors were always a concern for our team. They work hard to create a welcoming haven where women feel supported in their choices and are then forced to witness this undermined by the cruel tactics of the groups standing outside. In Ealing and at many of our other clinics, women are subjected to unwanted discussions, graphic imagery, or told they were going to hell and handed plastic foetuses and insidious leaflets that address them as ‘Mum’. During the Lent campaign by the American organisation ’40 Days for Life’, this intimidating behaviour escalates still further, with groups of anti-choice people besieging the clinic for 12 hours at a time, hindering women from accessing NHS funded services.
No-one who comes to us has made their decision lightly and many of the women who are confronted by anti-abortion groups outside our clinics feel that their privacy has been seriously invaded at a time and place when they were most vulnerable.
We see women who have been forced to travel from Ireland and Northern Ireland, women with wanted pregnancies who have received the devastating news that their babies will not survive outside the womb, women and girls who have been sexually abused. Can you imagine going through that and then having to walk past people judging you for your decision? It is cruel and should not be allowed.
Thankfully, last April after a passionate campaign by pro-choice group Sister Supporter, Ealing council put a stop to this kind of abuse with the country’s first ever buffer zone, transforming women’s experience and virtually eliminating all incidents of harassment from outside the clinic. Women arriving at our clinic are no longer distressed and our teams can come to work without fear and in the knowledge that if people do try to intimidate or verbally assault them, there are clear police powers that can be called upon.
We believe in the right to assembly, expression and to practice your religion, but this should never be at the expense of a woman’s right to legal healthcare. Context is everything, and a woman’s right to privacy and family life is paramount when walking through our clinic doors. These anti-choice groups should not have a free pass to harass women they don’t know, invade their space and block their right to healthcare.
Ealing Council carefully reviewed the evidence before them last year and considered how to prevent the harm being caused while being mindful of others’ rights and we are thankful that this ruling upholds their decision.
From the day it was introduced this Public Spaces Protection Order has protected the wellbeing of everyone coming to our West London centre. But ultimately a PSPO is not an adequate response to what is a national problem. Collecting evidence for PSPOs is a lengthy time-consuming process and can be a struggle for already financially stretched councils. Protection orders also last just three years and only offer protection to women in a limited geographical area, leaving most clinics across the country defenceless.
In September 2018, the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid had the opportunity to bring in a national legislation, but regrettably this chance was squandered when he reached the conclusion that introducing national buffer zones would not be “a proportionate response”. This, despite his own report concluding that all anti-abortion activities can have an adverse effect, and some had been downright aggressive, causing some women to rebook appointments or to ignore medical advice to avoid protesters.
Harassment of people outside abortion clinics is a national problem and deserves a national solution. The Isle of Man has proven that reform is possible. This year, it completely decriminalised abortion and brought in ‘Safe Access Zones’ around premises that provide abortion or abortion counselling, a decision that protects those accessing and providing abortion care from harassment. It is time for the UK government to end the postcode lottery of harassment and legislate for Safe Access Zones outside all registered abortion care providers in the UK.