Protest-free “buffer zones” will not be introduced outside abortion clinics in England and Wales, the Home Secretary has announced.
After an official review the government has decided against banning anti-abortion campaigners from standing outside clinics, claiming that doing so would not be a “proportionate response”.
More than 2,500 responses were submitted to the Home Office and Sajid Javid states that many of them included details of “upsetting examples of harassment and the damaging impact this behaviour has had on individuals”.
“In some of these cases, protest activities can involve handing out model foetuses, displaying graphic images, following people, blocking their paths and even assaulting them,” the statement reads.
However, Javid adds that these activities “are not the norm”, claiming: “Predominantly, anti-abortion activities are more passive in nature.”
“I have therefore reached the conclusion that introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response, considering the experiences of the majority of hospitals and clinics, and considering that the majority of activities are more passive in nature,” it concludes.
The matter will be kept under review and Javid is calling for the police to work with abortion service providers in order to ensure public safety and security.
In areas facing “heightened tensions”, the police will “continue to actively engage in community discussions”.
Home Office minister Victoria Atkins defended the move in the Commons, by pointing out that buffer zones may still be implemented on a case-by-case basis.
She said: “In those circumstances, at the moment, the conclusion of the evidence is we continue with the current scheme of allowing councils to apply for public space protection orders, which are targeted orders.
“But of course we keep this matter very much under review because we want to ensure that people who need to access these services can do so in a safe way.”
Abortion provider Marie Stopes’ managing director Richard Bentley has said his organisation “don’t agree that this is the right decision”.
In a statement issued to HuffPost UK, he added: “Asking councils to use Public Space Protection Orders to manage harassment on a clinic by clinic basis is a step forward, but it can only ever be a sticking plaster.
“PSPOs are not permanent measures and risk creating a postcode lottery in which some women are protected from harassment while others aren’t. This clearly isn’t right.
“We don’t believe anyone should face harassment when accessing a legal, confidential health service and we would strongly urge the Home Office to think again to ensure all women accessing abortion services have consistent protection.”
The review states that in 2017, it was found 36 of the 363 hospitals and clinics that provide abortions in England and Wales have experienced protesters outside.
In April, Ealing Council made history by becoming the first to enforce an exclusion zone around a clinic, banning protestors from campaigning within 100 metres of a Marie Stopes clinic on Mattock Lane.
Speaking at the time, Councillor Binda Rai, cabinet member for children and young people, said the implementation of the order was a “necessary and proportionate step”.
In response to the new ruling, a director at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) point out that “as the Minister states, Ealing Council’s buffer zone has proved effective at reducing the harassment and intimidation outside their abortion clinic”.
“We will now look to work with councils to roll out this model across the country to protect women and staff in clinics affected by protests,” Clare Murphy said.
“However, we are very clear that if the remedies suggested by the Home Secretary, including council-led Public Space Protection Orders and guidance from police, do not prove effective, we will look again at pursuing the national legislation that we still believe would be the best way to deal with this issue.”
Labour MPs have also spoken out following the ministerial statement, with Yvette Cooper calling it “a very disappointing response.”
“Women shouldn’t ever face intimidation and harassment for going to a health care appointment that is their right,” she said. “New action is needed to prevent this kind of targeting of patients and staff right by the clinic entrance.”
“The Home Secretary has given the green light for women to be harassed and abused for exercising their right to choose,” Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbott added. “This is a disgusting failure to uphold women’s rights over their own bodies. Sajid Javid must urgently reconsider.”
Stella Creasy has tweeted, as has the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas:
Ealing-based pro-choice group Sister Supporter collected more than 3,000 signatures in support of the safe zone and said they were “delighted” with the council’s decision on April.
They are “disappointed and frustrated” by today’s news, telling HuffPost UK: “That the Home Office has reviewed this evidence for seven months and has failed to come up with any recommendations other than the status quo is frankly insulting to women everywhere.
“We will not stop fighting for the rights of women to access legal healthcare free of interference and intimidation. Sajid Javid needs to think again.”
Anti-abortion group Be Here For Me opposed the move but their bid to have the ban overturned at the High Court was unsuccessful.
In response to the Home Secretary’s announcement, Elizabeth Howard, spokeswoman for the group, said: “This carefully considered decision represents the common sense we have been calling for all along. It demonstrates Sajid Javid’s commitment to fundamental civil liberties as well as ensuring that women will continue to be offered much needed help and support. It will mean that people offering this vital support will not be criminalised.”
She added: “This is a victory for the 100s of women who have received practical help and support outside abortion centres across the country, and for all the women who will not have this vital support option removed from them when they are in need in the future.”