New Clause 43 - Offence of interference with access to or provision of abortion services

Part of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 24 June 2021.

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Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee 12:15, 24 June 2021

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am proud to speak to this clause, tabled by my hon. Friend Dr Huq and supported by more than 35 MPs from across the House.

As we come to the end of Committee stage, a significant portion of our debate has focused on the safety of women in public spaces, and I am grateful for that. We can all recognise, to a greater or lesser degree, that existing public order legislation does not provide the necessary framework to address women’s fear and concerns in public spaces.

This new clause raises a discrete problem—harassment outside abortion clinics. The issue has been raised in the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton for several years, with great support from other Members on both sides of the House. As hon. Members will see on the amendment paper, the new clause has cross -party support from Members from five different parties.

Although my hon. Friend was driven to raise this issue by harassment in her own constituency, this is not a local issue. Figures from the Department of Health and Social Care and abortion providers indicate that in 2019 more than 100,000 women—or more than half of everyone who has an abortion—had to attend a hospital or abortion clinic that had been targeted by anti-abortion groups.

I want to make it clear that this new clause is not about abortion. A woman’s legal right to end a pregnancy is supported by the House and by the public and has been in statute since 1967. It is, however, about the ability of a woman to exercise this legal right without the fear of harassment or intimidation. Therefore, this new clause has a narrow purpose to introduce buffer zones 150 metres around abortion clinics, where certain activities designated as pressuring women about their decision to access abortion are banned.

Currently, around the country, anti-abortion groups engage in activity at the clinic gate seeking to deter or prevent women from accessing abortion care. This takes many forms, including the display of graphic images of dismembered foetuses, large marches that gather outside the clinic, filming women and staff members, following women down the street, sprinkling sites with holy water and handing out leaflets that tell women, falsely, that abortion causes breast cancer, suicidal intentions and can lead to child abuse. Recently, groups have been handing out advertisements for dangerous and unproven medication to reverse an abortion. This activity has been an almost permanent fixture outside several clinics for years. Abortion providers such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service have collected thousands of accounts from women they have treated about the activities outside clinics and the impact it has had on them. In the past year alone, even during lockdown, this harassment has continued.

One woman, in Liverpool, reported in February:

“She told me that I should let God decide—that it will torture me for the rest of my life and don’t let them do it. She told me her daughter couldn’t have kids and I’m wrong for killing a baby…that I’ll have no luck in the future if I kill a baby.”

Another woman, in Bournemouth, said in December 2020:

“My partner was waiting in the car and he had one woman staring at him and walking around his car whilst showing him a cross. Both my children (both under 4) were in the car waiting with my partner…I felt uncomfortable walking out of the clinic knowing they were there.”

The mother of a patient in Bournemouth just last week said:

“The protester was stood by the entrance with a banner. My daughter is autistic and this procedure is stressful and traumatic—and when she realised they were outside it caused her to have a panic attack”.

Doctors and nurses are not immune to harassment, either. In Brighton in October 2020, one reported:

“There was a man in the entrance lobby—my colleague didn’t know what to do. He wouldn’t leave. He asked us if this was a place where ‘you kill babies’, if I ‘agreed with murdering babies’, and whether I was ‘happy to murder foetuses’.”

This is not a protest—the groups involved in this activity are very clear that they are not seeking to change lawmakers’ minds or amend the abortion legislation. Instead, they seek direct access to individual women who have no choice but to approach them as they access legal and essential healthcare. It is, quite simply, targeted harassment.

The solution is simple and has been used successfully across Canada, Australia and parts of the USA. We need to protect women seeking confidential medical care by making it clear that it is unacceptable to accost a woman at a clinic gate, harass her and lie to her about medical procedures.

We must also recognise that much of the legislation has been thoroughly inadequate at addressing the problem. I am sure the Minister will wish to mention that. The only law that has ever been successful in solving the problem at clinic levels is public space protection orders, which enable a council to create its own local buffer zone, but only three counties across the country have them in place, leaving more than 90% of affected clinics with nothing to protect them. That creates a postcode lottery of protection from harassment, and that is just not good enough. We need a national solution to this national problem. I hope the Minister will consider the impact of this activity on women, and I hope she will recognise that, despite the existing law, it has continued unabated for years.