Do abortion clinic buffer zones violate freedom of speech?

Nearly 120,000 people want buffer zones to protect women from 'harassment' outside abortion clinics

(Image credit: PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty)

A petition calling for buffer zones outside abortion clinics to prevent pregnant women and healthcare workers from being "harassed" by pro-life protesters has been signed by almost 120,000 people.

It is being delivered to 10 Downing Street today by campaigners backed by several organisations, including the Royal College of Midwives, Rape Crisis and Mumsnet.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which has been running a Back Off campaign, claims protests are taking place daily outside abortion clinics across the country. The Home Office is yet to reply to a request from Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper to consult on a range of measures to prevent such harassment.

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BPAS claims buffer zones are needed to stop protesters from routinely filming women entering the clinics and displaying huge, graphic images of dismembered foetuses.

One woman told the advisory service she felt "intimated and scared to go into the clinic", while another said she was left "physically shaking".

But speaking on London Live, Ruth Rawlins, from anti-abortion group Abort67, denied that women are being "harassed" and described the protests as a "public education project". If the so-called protesters were harassing women, they would be arrested, but police have not intervened, she said.

Rawlins accused abortion clinics of "deceiving" women about how far a foetus has developed at the point of abortion and claimed Abort67 is "peacefully exposing what the abortion clinics are doing to the unborn child".

She described the call to introduce buffer zones as "anti free speech" and insisted that a number of women who were persuaded to keep their babies have even thanked Abort67 for its advice.

The group claims it is only using film footage to prove that it is not harassing women or blocking them from accessing services.

Erika Garratt, who set up the petition after seeing video footage of a pregnant woman confronting protesters outside a clinic in Southwark, said she respected the protesters' right to disagree with abortion but said they must respect women's right to privacy too.

"In my eyes these protests are a subtle form of violence against women and an attempt to stop women being able to make choices about their own bodies and their own lives," she said.

Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, who is supporting the Back Off campaign, said she was "deeply concerned" about the escalation in intimidating activity. "Women have a fundamental right to make their own sexual health choices and the Government has a duty to ensure these legal healthcare services can continue to operate and be accessed safely," she said.

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