The Home Office is facing renewed calls to introduce “buffer zones” around abortion clinics, as reproductive campaigners say its “refusal to act” is directly to blame for harassment of women seeking healthcare.
Several politicians and campaigners have urged the department to enforce no-protest zones after the British Pregnancy Advisory Service shared photos of a group of anti-abortion protesters outside a London clinic.
Bpas said 45 protestors had gathered outside its Stroud Green clinic in Finsbury Park, north London on Saturday. “This is a direct result of the Home Office's refusal to take action — giving the impression that harassing women outside clinics is acceptable,” it said.
The call for action comes a year and a half after the Home Office concluded a review into abortion protests in the UK, at which point then-home secretary Sajid Javid said buffer zones would not be a "proportionate" response.
The protestors appear to have been from the anti-abortion group Helpers of God's Precious Infants, which targets a different clinic each month. Its website advertises a schedule of protests, including an invitation to attend the Stroud Green clinic on 8 February that said its mission included evangelism and talking to people who were considering an abortion.
A spokesperson for Bpas said the charity was “deeply disappointed that yet another of our clinics is now being targeted by anti-abortion protesters”. They said the protest was “deeply distressing” for patients, some of whom were followed down the street as they left the clinic.
"Since the Home Office declined to take action to put a stop to this type of activity in late 2018, 44 clinics across the UK have had to deal with anti-abortion protests,” they said.
"This type of activity is unacceptable. Women and BPAS staff desperately need the government to step up and bring in buffer zones to move protesters away from the clinic gate."
The call for action has been backed by several prominent pro-choice groups, medical charities and politicians.
Rupa Huq, the Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton, said protests had been “the norm” at a clinic run by reproductive health charity Marie Stopes in her constituency until Ealing Council had used local by-laws to introduce the UK’s first buffer zone.
However, she said the Public Spaces Protection Order was up for renewal soon and was “proof that this nationwide problem needs a lasting nationwide solution”.
Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy, said: "We don’t need these US-style bully boy tactics over here. We must protect and defend a women’s right to choose. The Home Office needs to outlaw this unacceptable behaviour."
John Chisholm, the British Medical Association’s medical ethics committee chair, said the Home Office had been “shamefully pusillanimous in failing to legislate to introduce buffer zones and give the protection that is needed”.
'Not a proportionate response'
The Home Office has faced repeated calls to implement so-called buffer zones – areas outside health facilities that provide abortion services – to protect patients from intimidation from anti-abortion groups.
Following a nine-month-long consultation, the department concluded in September 2018 that the problem was not widespread enough to warrant legislation. Sajid Javid, home secretary at the time, said “introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response”, given the scale of the problem and the fact that most protests were “more passive in nature”.
Last October a coalition of 31 charities and medical bodies wrote to Javid’s successor, Priti Patel, urging her to reconsider the department’s approach because of what they called “serious concerns about the process” that led it to reject the proposal.
It said there had been significant gaps in the evidence presented to Javid about the scale and severity of the problem, and that the report “did not critically evaluate” assertions by anti-abortion groups about their use of cameras outside clinics. It also said the report arising from the consultation – the submissions to which included a database of testimonies from 1,300 people affected by the protests – “underplays and misrepresents” the experiences of clinic staff and women.
It said at the time that 34 clinics had experienced anti-abortion activity in the year since the Home Office rejected the buffer zones proposal, including five that had never experienced protests before. According to Bpas, that number has since risen to 44.
A Home Office spokesperson said: ‘Decisions on how to manage demonstrations are an operational matter for the police who must, in each case, carefully consider people's right to protest and balance this with the rights of others to go about their lawful business without fear of intimidation or harassment.
“The police and local authorities have powers to restrict harmful protests – these powers have been successfully used outside abortion clinics in Ealing and Richmond.”