The government rules out “buffer zones” – despite discovering assaults outside abortion clinics

Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s contradictory reason for rejecting protest restrictions is an insult to women.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Investigating the activities of anti-abortion protesters outside clinics in Britain, the Home Office discovered that harassment and other behaviour is having a “damaging impact” on women.

The review found that assaulting women, following them, blocking their entrance, displaying graphic images, handing out model foetuses, and praying all take place outside clinics – distressing patients and causing some to rebook appointments or to ignore medical advice in order to avoid protesters.

And don’t take my word for it – it’s all in Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s written statement to the House of Commons.

But somehow, the answer he’s come up with to the review’s conclusion that “all anti-abortion activities can have an adverse effect” is… nothing at all. Just him extending his sympathies.

The government was supposed to be looking into a national strategy for “buffer zones” outside abortion clinics – to stop protesters coming into direct contact with patients and potential patients.

But despite the report’s findings, Javid has decided that there weren’t enough women on the receiving end of aggressive behaviour in order to protect those who are.

“There were relatively few reports of the more aggressive activities described above,” he said. “… I have therefore reached the conclusion that introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response.”

Javid points towards existing legislation against harmful protest activities as if it’s some kind of solution – despite in the very same statement admitting that the Home Office had found that “all anti-abortion activities can have an adverse effect”, and that some of this activity had indeed been aggressive. Where was existing legislation in these cases, eh?

Many women attacked or harassed outside these clinics are reluctant to report protesters to the police because of the understandable desire to just get a stressful experience over with.

Yes, Javid has instructed Police and Crime Commissioners to offer services to people affected by crimes committed at abortion clinic protests regardless of whether they’ve been reported – but this still requires the women to take action when they’re feeling at their most vulnerable. The onus shouldn’t be on the women.

Harassment charges are also very difficult to bring when most of these women will only encounter the protester or protesters harassing them once or twice while they use the clinic.

Javid gives the example of Ealing Council, which made a landmark decision in April to create a buffer zone around its Marie Stopes clinic (which had been the subject of intimidating anti-abortion protests for years).

The government’s argument is that other councils can follow Ealing’s example by introducing a Public Spaces Protection Order to restrict demonstrations in a certain area. (This is under the anti-social behaviour legislation.)

But as I reported in April on the day after Ealing’s historic vote, this will be very difficult for other councils to do. Ealing’s protection order only lasts three years and then the local authority will be back where it started.

It took a large public consultation, with the weight of opinion among local respondents overwhelmingly in favour of a buffer zone, to achieve a unanimous vote from the council. “Not all the burden can fall on overstretched local government,” Rupa Huq, the Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton who pushed the government for a nationally applicable solution, told me in April. Councils are too stretched to be expected to launch large and lengthy public consultations and to try and shoe-horn legislation to apply to issues outside their clinics and hospitals.

At the moment, the government is in the same breath admitting clinics have a problem that existing laws aren’t covering while saying no change or new policy is required. And only until an arbitrary “proportion” of women are suffering will it deign to address this contradiction.

Until then, councils will have to look at following Ealing’s model – something Portsmouth, Manchester, Richmond, Southwark, Lambeth and Birmingham have already begun discussing.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.