I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restrict demonstrations in the vicinity of abortion clinics;
and for connected purposes.
The demands in this Bill are not new, and although its title includes the word “abortion”, the termination of pregnancy is not at issue here—not the number of weeks, or anything of that nature. This is about women being able to present themselves for legal healthcare free from intimidation.
Many Members with a clinic within their boundary will know the issue at stake. In 2017, I and 113 cross-party colleagues wrote to the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd, which resulted in her commissioning a review. Alas, by the time it reported back, her successor recognised the problem but deemed it was not serious enough to address. Yet any harassment is surely wrong and since then things have worsened. Pre-lockdown, there were scenes of scores of protesters obstructing the entrance to the BPAS Finsbury Park clinic. That made national news. My hon. Friend Catherine West called on the Government to bring forward legislation to protect women from Cardiff to Eastbourne and Doncaster—even my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has this menace on his patch.
Lockdown provided some respite, but they are at it again. It took over three decades of protests outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing until the exasperated council in 2018 introduced Britain’s first buffer zone—a public spaces protection order, a local authority byelaw—so that women could access healthcare services in confidence and dignity, with their journey down the street and up the path into the clinic unimpeded by anti-abortion or even pro-choice campaigners after having probably made the most difficult decision of their lives.
But with the covid-19 crisis preoccupying local authorities—although the protesters do not seem deterred by it—councils have enough on their plate without having to find the time and resources for the onerous process necessary for a PSPO. While a PSPO is an infinite improvement on what was there before, it is cumbersome and only temporary. Ours ends next year, and it took a six-figure sum to gather evidence and redeploy a senior team of officers from elsewhere for six months, and to pay for the subsequent signage and the legal fees from the inevitable challenges from the well-endowed people on the other side.
I have been aware of Ealing protests since the ’90s, which included disturbing 2D and 3D foetus images lining the road. When I became a parent and had to walk my own past there, I shuddered more. As an MP, I received representations from constituents from neighbouring houses, with people saying that they there were not sure whether to comfort the women in distress. Worse still was the anguish felt by women clinic users. They were usually young and about to go through a challenging process, sometimes after rape or a fatal foetal abnormality. The last thing they needed in that situation was to be met by lifelike, medically inaccurate foetus dolls and graphic images, handed misleading literature on the way in, or called “mum” and told they would go to hell. I held a meeting at the clinic, and we only got in because it was raining that day and the protesters were put off by the precipitation. The clinic keeps an incident log, and staff reported being hounded themselves, and told me about women either missing appointments or turning up in tears due to groups congregating outside, thus causing potential physical and emotional harm to themselves. There was a record number of submissions to the PSPO consultation, including reports of clinic users being shouted at, having their arms grabbed, and being filmed on camera phones. While pro-life supporters claim that handing out leaflets and kneeling with rosary beads is not harassment or intimidation, nor needs police intervention, as Justice Turner said when upholding the Ealing decision at the High Court, it is “uninvited attention” when women are “vulnerable and sensitive”.
Ealing’s chief superintendent told me that the police would prefer national protections as this order is about to run out and the whole onerous process must start again. Policing has been made a lot better now, with officers freed up to fight crime, rather than keeping rival groups apart at the gate since the emergence of the pro-choice advocacy group, Sister Supporter.
In reality, however, only one side protests not in the traditional sense by targeting legislators like us to change decisions, but by targeting individual women on their way to make this agonising decision that they have often made as a forced choice, and with judgments on their morality cast all over them. The High Court, the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court have all affirmed the Ealing decision, with my brilliant barrister constituent, Kuljit Bhogal, defending each time, but the cash-strapped council and our leader Julian Bell now fear further expense because the next stop is going to be the European Court of Human Rights, at a time when every penny from the public purse counts.
Life is all about weighing up competing interests, and freedom of thought, of conscience, of expression and of assembly are often cited, but clinic users also have a right to privacy. Pregnancy is something we tend to keep private until it shows: I definitely did—and look at Carrie; we didn’t know until later, did we? Pregnancy is a personal thing, and shaming people undergoing it, with the added dimension of abortion, and pushing them into the spotlight in a public place—a public highway—violates this. As our chief superintendent put it, protesters can still protest; they have just moved a few hundred yards down the road.
Many MPs on both sides of the House who are supporting this Bill are devout Christians, and we should not muddy the waters of the issues at stake here. When that vicar’s daughter, Joy Morrissey, was an Ealing councillor, she was a prime mover behind our PSPO, and local clergy, such as Nick Jones of Saint Mary, Acton, are completely 100% on side, as are a plethora of other groups: the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Women’s Aid and Mumsnet to name but a few.
Australia and Canada have adopted this approach and this type of legislation functions fine, but we do not want to go down the road of America, where there are horrific stories of medical professionals’ cars being booby-trapped and all sorts of scary things; I fear we could head in that direction if action is not taken now.
This is not about the rights and wrongs of abortion. While emotions run high, and there are sincerely held opinions on both sides of the argument, we must accept that it has been legal for 50 years in this country. This is about the rights of vulnerable women seeking access to healthcare in safety, anonymity and dignity, without the accompanying paraphernalia designed to induce guilt, such as grossly inaccurate quasi-medical leaflets or being filmed and livestreamed entering and leaving the clinic, which no other medical procedure would attract. Access to health services should be a fundamental human right enjoyed by all without interference.
Following our buffer zone in Ealing, Richmond has followed suit, and apparently the constituencies of my good friends my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) are next on the cards. Although Ealing’s PSPO was a necessary and local solution to a local problem, women should not effectively be in an uneven, patchy postcode lottery in order to be able to access harassment-free reproductive healthcare. This is a national problem that requires a national solution. Where Ealing leads, the world should follow, but we should better what Ealing has. This Government have been courageous with things such as same sex-marriage and they should be so again. I commend the Bill to the House.