The debate around abortion buffer zones

Vote to block protests outside clinics has proven as divisive as the issue of abortion itself

Anti-abortion campaigners outside a clinic in London
Anti-abortion campaigners outside a clinic in London
(Image credit: Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images Images)

MPs have backed plans to enforce 150-metre buffer zones around abortion clinics in England and Wales.

Anti-abortion protests outside clinics have seen activists “displaying graphic images of foetuses, filming women and staff members” and “singing hymns”, said the BBC.

Buffer zones would stop anti-abortion protesters or any other types of demonstrators standing outside the clinic or hospital or in the near vicinity. Harassing, obstructing or interfering with any woman attending an abortion clinic would become a criminal offence, with punishments of up to six months in prison.

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However, like the very issue of abortion itself, the plan has proven deeply controversial.

‘Hideously overdue’

The Labour MP Stella Creasy, who is behind the new rules contained in an amendment to the government’s public order bill, said buffer zones protect “women accessing a very specific type of healthcare”.

Creasy added: “It does not stop free speech on abortion. It does not stop people protesting. It simply says you shouldn’t have the right to do this in the face of somebody – and very often these people are right up in front of people.”

Staff who work in clinics have “reported being harassed by those who do not believe women should have the right to choose what happens to their own bodies”, wrote Jennifer Savin in Cosmopolitan, adding that the buffer zone plan is “frankly hideously overdue”.

Clare Murphy, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said the leading abortion provider was “delighted” politicians had voted to “protect women, protect healthcare staff, and establish buffer zones”.

Pro-life protesters have attempted “to deter or prevent women from accessing abortion care by displaying graphic images of foetuses, calling women ‘murderers’, and hanging baby clothing around clinic entrances, causing women significant distress”, she told The Independent.

Louise McCudden, of MSI Reproductive Choices’ UK, another abortion provider, agreed, saying the MPs’ vote – which was passed by 297 to 110 – constituted “a huge victory for reproductive rights”.

‘Sledgehammer to civil liberties’

However, said Right To Life News, “hundreds of women” have been “helped” outside abortion clinics by “pro-life volunteers” who “made it clear to them that they had another option other than going through with the abortion”.

If the bill passes into law, the group believe there is the potential that the “vital practical support” provided by volunteers outside abortion clinics will be “removed for women”.

Writing for The Critic, Alina Dulgheriu recalled when she was “single, abandoned, facing unemployment” and “terrified” when she discovered she was pregnant.

“The day that I turned up to my abortion appointment, a volunteer outside the clinic gently gave me a leaflet,” she wrote, and had this not happened “my beautiful daughter would not be here today”.

Other women who would “rather keep their babies than have abortions” will be denied “valuable assistance” if the planned laws “turn anyone who volunteers advice into criminals”, she added.

Writing for The Times, Anthony Horan, director of the Catholic Parliamentary Office, argued that the proposal “takes a sledgehammer to our civil liberties”, including “the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, as well as the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.

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