Why Doctors Are Calling For Buffer Zones Around UK Abortion Clinics

More than 50 clinics have been targeted by anti-abortion protestors since 2018.
Anti-abortion demonstrators hold up signs during a demonstration commemorating the Roe versus Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion rights.
Stephanie Maze via Getty Images
Anti-abortion demonstrators hold up signs during a demonstration commemorating the Roe versus Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion rights.

Footage of women accessing abortions in the US being harassed on their way to getting treatment is all too commonplace. But it happens in the UK, too.

Anti-abortion activists have protested outside healthcare facilities in the UK, with placards displaying graphic images, likening abortions to murder, and questioning the moral character of women seeking treatment.

Now, medical leaders in the UK are calling on the expansion of buffer zones – a perimeter around an abortion facility intended to limit how close anti-abortion demonstrators can approach.

The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) which represents 14,000 UK doctors, is calling for a network of legally-protected spaces that will protect people accessing reproductive healthcare to be implemented across the country.

This comes after the British Pregnancy Advisory Service revealed that 50 new clinics have been targeted by protesters in England and Wales since 2018.

Dr Edward Morris, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, told the BBC: “Abortion care is an essential sexual and reproductive health service and buffer zones must be introduced to ensure that the privacy and rights of those who access these services are respected.

“The harassment and ongoing intimidation of women and staff outside of abortion clinics is unacceptable and would not be tolerated for any other healthcare service.”

Global abortion rights have been firmly in the spotlight again this month after leaked documents suggested the US Supreme Court plans to remove the national law protecting the right to have an abortion in America. The landmark ruling, known as the Roe vs Wade case, was first established in 1973 and legalised abortion for the whole country.

Although abortion is legal across the UK, under a law passed in 1861 any woman who ends a pregnancy without legal authorisation from two doctors can still face up to life imprisonment – which is why campaigners continue to call for abortion to be decriminalised.

And although abortion was legalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019, access to appointments remains limited.

Pro Life campaigners stand outside the Marie Stopes Clinic on April 7, 2016 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Charles McQuillan via Getty Images
Pro Life campaigners stand outside the Marie Stopes Clinic on April 7, 2016 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Parts of the UK have already experienced a rise in anti-abortion activists outside clinics in recent years, which some claim have been directly “recruited” by American religious groups.

In response, the first abortion buffer zone was successfully set up in Ealing, London, in 2018, but since then any other protected spaces have failed to materialise.

Now the government is facing fresh calls to introduce the measure more widely in England and Wales.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister has already said she is looking to see how Holyrood can legislate on this issue. She is set to chair an emergency summit on buffer zones in June.

Scottish Green Party MSP Gillian Mackay holds a placard outside the Scottish Parliament in support of the creation of buffer zones around abortion clinics.
Ken Jack via Getty Images
Scottish Green Party MSP Gillian Mackay holds a placard outside the Scottish Parliament in support of the creation of buffer zones around abortion clinics.

FSRH president Dr Asha Kasliwal said harassment and intimidation outside these facilities caused great distress to both patients and staff.

“The only way to ensure patients are able to access healthcare free of harassment and intimidation is the legal implementation of buffer zones,” she said.

However, anti-abortion campaigners are claiming these buffer zones impinge on their right to protest and would ‘criminalise their prayers’.

While the controversial Public Order Bill would curb protesting powers, the government is considering an amendment to the bill to protect areas outside clinics.

A debate on this topic by a cross-party group of MPs is tabled for June.

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