Yesterday, Sajid Javid announced that he will not bring in nationwide protection against harassment outside abortion clinics. He rejected the proposal to bring in “buffer zones” that would stop anti-abortion protesters from setting up camp outside the gates of clinics and targeting medics and service-users as they enter. We have been arguing for just this type of measure to be introduced locally by Lambeth Council since early 2018. Council leaders have indicated it will come into force shortly.
Sajid Javid’s decision against nationwide buffer zones is indefensible, even by his own logic. Javid cites two main reasons to dismiss the measure. The first is that only 36 clinics out of the 363 that carried out abortions in 2017 experienced anti-abortion protests. He claims that the figures show the introduction of national legislation on buffer zones around clinics would be “disproportionate”.
I disagree. This figure shows only that 327 clinics that did not experience protests will experience no change when national legislation is introduced – their staff and patients (and non-existent protesters) will notice no difference.
But for those 36 clinics that do experience protests, what a difference this legislation would make! It would swiftly and equitably bring in protections for the hundreds of women who experience unnecessary extra distress when accessing legal healthcare every year. By failing to bring in this nationwide protection, Javid leaves women prey to a postcode lottery, reliant on attending a clinic in an area where a local council has introduced a buffer zone of its own accord.
His second argument is that legislation already exists to combat the issue. Clearly the Public Order Act is not sufficient to dissuade protesters. The majority of local people in Streatham hate to see protesters outside our BPAS clinic, and I know some have called the police on particularly bad days. But this has not stopped protesters returning.
I find it heinous that Javid suggests that women must become victims before they can be afforded protection. He offers to bring protesters who break the law to justice and provide support for victims. Better, surely, to move anti-abortion protests away from the gates of clinics, thus avoiding the victimisation in the first place.
The question we should ask ourselves is: would we tolerate this type of behaviour towards any other group of patients? Would we allow protesters to approach and harass those seeking treatment at clinics or entering hospital to undergo other types of operations, at a time when patients and their families are already under great stress? I do not believe we would. It is time that we afford the same respect to women exercising their legal right to abortion.