On 24 June, MPs voted in favour of a bill that would create buffer zones outside abortion clinics in England and Wales, preventing protesters from gathering outside. Here, Rupa Huq – the MP who introduced the bill – tells Stylist why it’s so important.
Rupa Huq grew up in Ealing, a leafy borough on the outer edges of west London. In the 90s, she became aware of anti-abortion protests taking place outside a Marie Stopes clinic in the area. Decades later, the demonstrations – which were specifically designed to dissuade women from having abortions – were still going on.
When Huq was voted in as Ealing’s new Labour MP in 2015, she knew she wanted to try and put a stop to these protests. Three years after she took office, Ealing Council created a ‘safe zone’ around the clinic using a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), effectively blocking protesters from gathering within 100 metres of the building.
But while people can now access the clinic in Ealing without being followed, harassed or intimidated by anti-choice protesters, the same cannot be said for women visiting clinics in other constituencies. So now, Huq has introduced a cross-party bill to parliament that would create buffer zones around all abortion clinics in England and Wales.
On 24 June, MPs voted 213-47 in favour of the bill, which would give police powers to disperse people demonstrating anywhere within a set distance of abortion clinics, regardless of whether they are anti-choice activists or pro-choice counter-protesters. It will now progress to a second reading.
If it is ultimately successful, the bill “will allow women accessing healthcare services to do so everywhere in confidence, anonymity and dignity, without their progress being impeded by anti- or pro-abortion campaigners on the street outside,” Huq tells Stylist.
In 2018, the then-home secretary Sajid Javid rejected the need for nationwide buffer zones around abortion clinics, claiming that the majority of tactics used by anti-choice protesters were “passive”. But Huq is aware of methods being used around clinics in the UK that cross a line into clear “harassment and intimidation”, such as videoing women entering clinics and livestreaming the footage on the internet.
Other tactics known to have been used in England in recent months include calling women entering clinics “murderers” and handing out leaflets claiming that women who have abortions are more likely to attempt suicide (they’re not). And even so-called passive protests – for example, displaying 3D models of foetuses and calling female clinic visitors “mum” – can be enormously distressing for women seeking abortions.
Huq is concerned by what she describes as the “Americanisation” of the anti-abortion movement in the UK. “These sorts of protests are standard in the US where staff at clinics have even had their cars booby-trapped and doctors historically even killed.” At least 11 people have been killed in attacks on abortion clinics in the States since 1993, while research by the National Abortion Federation shows that US clinics faced at least 175 incidents of arson and 41 bombings between 1977 and 2009.
The UK, thankfully, has not experienced anti-choice terrorism. But anti-abortion campaign groups that began life in the US are now active in the UK, and protests outside abortion clinics are on the rise. Research by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas) shows that 44 clinics across the UK – including NHS hospitals that provide abortion services – were targeted by anti-choice protesters in the 18 months leading to February 2020. Of those clinics, eight had never faced demonstrations before.
Huq says that police in Ealing have told her that the safe zone outside the Marie Stopes clinic has made their lives easier and freed up their officers to “actually fight crime”. But very few other councils have implemented safe zones around their clinics. In fact, only one other clinic in England or Wales is protected by a PSPO: a Bpas clinic in Richmond, southwest London.
This is partly because PSPOs are extremely difficult to introduce. They last for a maximum of three years, and require evidence that antisocial behaviour has had a persistent, detrimental impact on an area. This can be hard to prove in the context of anti-abortion protests, since some anti-choice activists prefer to move from clinic to clinic instead of staking out one venue for a prolonged period of time.
PSPOs are also open to legal challenges: last year, two anti-choice activists mounted a legal challenge at the Court of Appeal in a bid to overturn the ban on protests outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing (the court dismissed the challenge). And they mean that anti-abortion protests can only be dispersed on a reactive, rather than proactive, basis.
This “piecemeal, patchwork” approach isn’t good enough, Huq says. “These protests are happening all over the country: in Manchester and Birmingham, Taunton and central London. It’s a national problem needing a national solution.”
What you can do
If you would like to back Rupa Huq’s campaign to impose buffer zones around abortion clinics in England and Wales, write to your MP in support of her bill. You can find your MP’s details at WriteToThem.com
This article was first published at 10am on 24 June 2020 and has been updated to include the news that MPs voted in favour of the bill.