Life

An abortion clinic has won a legal victory on safe zones, but there’s still more work to be done

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Sarah Shaffi
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Placards in support of a Public Space Protection Order are placed outside the Marie Stopes Abortion Clinic by a pro-choice group on October 27, 2017 in London, England. Earlier this month, Ealing councillors voted in favour of enforcing a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) to prevent anti-abortion groups from gathering outside the Marie Stopes clinic.

A court judgement in favour of a clinic in Ealing is a big moment, but all abortion clinics need to be protected.

Choosing to get an abortion is not a decision that anyone comes to without great thought and consideration. The procedure itself may be draining, physically and mentally, and it’s not something you’re likely to forget easily.

But getting an abortion is made even more difficult by having to face hostile protesters outside the place you choose to get your procedure done, which is why “buffer zones” are essential.

Buffer zones, also called safe zones, aim to stop anti-choice protesters from gathering outside abortion clinics and harassing those using the clinics.

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Unfortunately, buffer zones are a rarity in the UK. In fact, there is only one in the UK, at the Marie Stopes West London Centre in Ealing.

Ealing Council implemented the safe zone outside the clinic on 23 April 2018. Since then, said a statement from Marie Stopes, “clinic team members found that women were no longer coming to their appointments in tears, having not been targeted and victimised by strangers positioned at the gate and groups crowding near the path”.

But the safe zone was threatened when two anti-choice protesters brought a case to the Court of Appeal against it, which judges heard in July.

This week, the three Court of Appeal judges issued a judgement rejecting the case, meaning that the safe zone can stay in place.

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Sally O’Brien, manager of Marie Stopes West London Centre, said: “We are incredibly thankful that this safe zone has once again been judged as fair and lawful, and that people who want to come to our clinic in Ealing can do so without fear of being intercepted and blocked from attending their appointment.

“It was always very clear to us that this anti-abortion activity outside the clinic was targeted street harassment towards pregnant women, but that it fell through the gaps of current harassment law. We’re very happy that the judges have seen this too and ruled in favour of safe access to care.”

But while the judgement is a victory for one clinic, it also shows the need for buffer zones to be implemented at clinics across the country, and for those zones to be nationally legislated.

Eve Veglio-White of Sister Supporter, the group which led a petition to create the buffer zone in the first place, welcomed the court’s decision.

“This is yet another clear indicator that protection of clinic users is urgent and necessary,” she said. “This decision further proves that existing legislation does not cover the unique type of harassment, intimidation and invasion of privacy that thousands of clinics users face every year.

“The Isle of Man, Canada, Australia are examples of countries that have introduced safe zone legislation to tackle this issue. The burden of securing safe zones should not fall on the shoulders of residents and councils; the government needs to take immediate action to protect clinic users across the whole of the UK.”

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Unfortunately, the government has shown little regard for the needs of those seeking an abortion. In 2017, then home secretary Amber Rudd said the government would consider the possibility of introducing nationwide buffer zones outside all centres.

But in September 2013 Rudd’s successor in the role, Sajid Javid, who is now chancellor, issued a written ruling in which he said he had “reached the conclusion that introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response” to the protests.

The women subjected to abuse on their way to get an abortion would no doubt think differently, and with a new cabinet now in place, campaigners for buffer zones are trying again to have them written into legislation.

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Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas) said that the “harassment and intimidation of women and abortion clinic staff remains a national problem in need of a national solution”.

Since Javid’s 2018 decision, said Murphy, “there have been anti-abortion protests at 32 separate clinics and hospitals, including four new protest sites”.

Murphy said the problem could worsen in the coming weeks, as campaign group 40 Days for Life was going to start “six weeks of continuous ‘vigils’ outside abortion clinics across the country, which will see anti-abortion activists target thousands more women and healthcare staff”.

The judgement by the Court of Appeal shows buffer zones are “legal, proportionate, and necessary” said Murphy.

She continued: “We urge the new home secretary Priti Patel to listen to the voices of women, medical bodies, and women’s rights organisations, and look again at the case for national legislation.”

It’s time for the government to step up and protect women seeking abortion from harassment and abuse.

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Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.

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