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Women to No Longer Face US-Style Anti-Abortion Tactics at Clinics

After years of campaigning, and an increase in tactics learned from US-based anti-abortion groups, buffer zones will be introduced in England and Wales

An anti-abortion vigil in Bedford Square, London. Ian Nicholson/PA Images/Alamy

Women to No Longer Face US-Style Anti-Abortion Tactics at Clinics

After years of campaigning, and an increase in tactics learned from US-based anti-abortion groups, buffer zones will be introduced in England and Wales

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MPs have voted 297 to 110 to introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics in England and Wales in a victory for those campaigning for women’s right to reproductive healthcare. 

The amendment to the Public Order Bill received cross-party support and creates a safe space around clinics so women attending will not be harassed by protestors who believe that abortion should not be allowed.

Charities such as British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and MSI Reproductive Choices have warned that protests outside clinics have increased in size and intensity over recent years, causing distress to women attending appointments. 

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists tweeted that it had heard reports of protestors sharing leaflets claiming that “rape is harder to get over than abortion”. During a training academy for protestors, this reporter was told that praying outside clinics worked to disrupt “Satan’s power” and prevent an abortion from working. 

Clare Murphy, chief executive of BPAS, said groups 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” and that the MPs’ vote “will bring an end to this activity”.

The Home Secretary voted against introducing buffer zones around abortion clinics – Suella Braverman has a history of voting against measures to improve access to abortion. Former Women’s Health Minister Maria Caulfield also voted against the measure, as did Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, who falsely stated in the House of Commons that emergency contraception was an abortifacient. 

Labour Leader Keir Starmer voted ‘aye’, as did Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves. The Prime Minister did not vote, neither did Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who in the past has signalled his support to reduce the upper time limit on abortions.

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US Tactics, UK Streets

One of the leading organisations fighting the implementation of buffer zones in England and Wales is ADF International – the European arm of the US religious freedom giant Alliance Defending Freedom. It is designated as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, although it disputes the designation. 

Last year, ADF International recorded an income of £720,000, which includes an unrestricted donation from its American parent. 

Alliance Defending Freedom successfully challenged the legality of buffer zones in the US, winning a Supreme Court case that ruled the zones were unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. The cause has been picked up by its UK office – with ADF UK’s Lois McLatchie arguing that “we already live in a country where harassment is illegal”. 

In 2019, Conservative MP Fiona Bruce spoke at an ADF International youth gathering in Vienna. Bruce has been one of the most vocal oppositions of buffer zones, saying during the debate that their introduction “potentially criminalises even those who simply stand peaceably near abortion clinics, and who do so mainly on the basis of their faith-based beliefs”.

Many of the anti-abortion protests outside abortion clinics have US links. 

40 Days for Life – which encourages its members to take part in 40 day “vigils” outside clinics – is a US organisation with branches across the world, including in the UK. Its UK-based director of International Campaigns is Robert Colquhoun, who attended a 2013 Agenda Europe summit where anti-abortion, anti-LGBTIQ activists and funders shared strategy, and is a board member for Centre for Bio Ethical Reform UK (CBR UK) – the organisation famed for displaying graphic anti-abortion imagery, including outside Labour MP Stella Creasy’s constituency office.

As with 40 Days for Life, CBR UK is affiliated to a US parent: the Centre for Bio Ethical Reform, established by former Republican law-maker Gregg Cunningham. Both CBR and Alliance Defending Freedom identified the UK as a place to campaign, due to its influence on the wider European region – an influence that has arguably waned in recent years. 

Both CBR UK and ADF UK have argued that buffer zones prevent activists from supporting women to choose not to have an abortion. ADF UK has been vocally supportive of the campaigner Alina Dulgheriu who has repeatedly failed to remove a Public Space Protection Order from a clinic in Ealing, where she claims she changed her mind about accessing a termination after speaking to a protester.

In its US Supreme Court Case, Alliance Defending Freedom argued that buffer zones blocked its client’s ability “to leaflet unwilling and even willing recipients. It also prevents her from speaking to clients in a normal conversational tone”.

But for many women attending clinics, the reality of not having a buffer zone is having to face protestors shouting “mummy mummy don’t kill me”, calling patients and staff “murderers”, and sharing graphic images of aborted foetuses. Such actions threaten a woman’s right to access safe and legal healthcare. 

The amendment will now go to the House of Lords. A similar plan to introduce buffer zones in Scotland is currently under consideration. 

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