Home Secretary Sajid Javid is refusing to introduce ‘buffer zones’ to stop anti-choice protesters gathering outside abortion clinics – and it’s just not good enough.
Imagine that you need an abortion. You set off for your local clinic, knowing that the procedure is likely to be emotionally draining and could potentially be physically painful. When you arrive, you are greeted by a crowd of anti-choice protesters, who thrust graphic and inaccurate images of aborted foetuses into your face, address you as “mum”, and hold signs bearing messages such as “thou shalt not kill”.
These are just some of the tactics used by anti-abortion protesters in the UK. Last December, following pressure from Labour MP Rupa Huq and campaign groups, former home secretary Amber Rudd ordered an assessment of the demonstrations taking place outside abortion clinics, and said the government would consider the possibility of introducing nationwide ‘buffer zones’ outside all centres.
On Thursday (13 September), however, current home secretary Sajid Javid announced he had rejected the idea of having buffer zones around all abortion clinics. In a written ruling, he said he had “reached the conclusion that introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response” to the problem.
Javid came to this verdict after consulting evidence gathered by the government, which he said showed that 36 hospitals and clinics in England and Wales experienced anti-abortion demonstrations in 2017. He is right to state that this is a relatively “small number of abortion facilities”, representing 10% of all the places in England and Wales that provide abortion services. If the government’s data is correct, most women who needed to get an abortion last year did not – thankfully – have to run the gauntlet of an anti-choice demonstration.
According to Javid, the majority of anti-abortion protests in England and Wales are “passive in nature”, involving “praying, displaying banners and handing out leaflets”. The fact that most protesters are not violent appears to have helped him reach his decision. But while these demonstrations may not be physically aggressive, they can still be devastating for women at a time when they may already feel tremendously vulnerable. Javid says that he “extends [his] sympathies to those going through this extremely difficult and personal process”, but this is likely to be cold comfort for the women he’s done nothing to help.
Even more confusingly, the home secretary recognises that a minority of abortion protests are actively antagonistic and violent. He notes that the government’s review “gathered upsetting examples of harassment”, including protesters “handing out model foetuses, displaying graphic images, following people, blocking their paths and even assaulting them”.
Some women have been so desperate to avoid the protesters that they have been forced to rebook their appointment, Javid said, or failed to take medical advice. These stories are appalling. Even if they represent a minority experience, surely that doesn’t mean nothing should be done about them?
“The government knows that all of these practices have adverse effects on women,” said Stella Creasy MP, who is spearheading an amendment to the government’s forthcoming Domestic Violence bill that would see abortion decriminalised across the UK.
“The idea that more women have to be affected more severely before the home secretary acts because he says it’s not proportionate to do so sends all the wrong messages about his commitment to equality.”
The campaign group Sister Supporter was a pivotal force in getting Ealing Council in west London to introduce a buffer zone around a Marie Stopes clinic in the borough, and its founder Anna Veglio-White was one of Stylist’s Women of the Year 2017. The group said its members were “disappointed and frustrated” by Javid’s ruling.
“Presumably the thousands of women affected at ‘only 36’ hospitals and clinics are acceptable collateral damage to Sajid Javid, who has not offered any other potential solution to this well-documented problem of harassment and intimidation, preferring instead to state that current police powers should suffice,” the group said in a statement.
“This goes against all evidence presented both to the national consultation and to the Select Committee that current police powers are not sufficient to address this issue.”
In delivering his ruling, Javid argued that police already have the authority to disperse protesters who are harassing women. But it has been well-documented that in fact, police are often unsure of how to proceed when faced with anti-abortion demonstrations – while the protesters are very well-versed in the law. Speaking to Stylist in 2017, Cathy Newman – who presented a Channel 4 documentary on the rise of US-style abortion clinic protests in the UK – said: “They know that for the police to move them on, individual women would have to make a complaint of harassment… And how many women are going to want to do that at such a vulnerable point in their lives?”
This ruling isn’t just a disappointment. It represents a total failure of the government to protect women who are exercising their legal right to control their own bodies. At a time when the government’s approach to abortion is already under scrutiny, that’s really, really not good enough.
Images: Getty Images