Lawyers have threatened to launch a first-of-its-kind legal action to introduce a “buffer zone” outside abortion clinics to stop protesters “heartlessly” targeting women seeking pregnancy terminations.
Women across the UK often suffer abuse while seeking an abortion, with more than 100,000 women attending clinics targeted by anti-abortion demonstrations in 2019.
Good Law Project, a legal watchdog, and Sister Supporter, an abortion rights campaign group, say that women seeking abortions and staff working at an abortion clinic in Camden in central London have been harassed by anti-abortion activists for years.
In a letter, shared exclusively with The Independent, lawyers threatened to launch legal proceedings against Camden Council if they do not take action to protect women and staff. Campaigners said the legal letter provides a model for forcing councils to roll out “buffer zones” around the country.
Lawyers have requested a response from the council outlining the measures it will take by 24 May – threatening formal legal proceedings if they miss this deadline.
One woman who attended the clinic said: “I was heckled by a man outside who kept shouting ‘mum’ at me. One woman followed me two blocks and made me feel unsafe.”
While another woman said: “I felt humiliated, upset, harassed and angry that this was allowed to happen, that nobody was able to prevent this. I felt humiliated at the time and it made me have an anxiety attack that took hours to calm down from.”
A buffer zone stops anti-abortion protesters or any other types of demonstrators standing outside the clinic or in the near vicinity to it. Local councils are able to introduce such measures under legislation rolled out in 2014 – with Ealing Council in west London introducing the UK’s first ever “buffer zone” around an abortion clinic in 2018.
Campaigners have long been calling for the government to roll out such “buffer zones” outside clinics nationally.
Camden Council drafted a buffer zone order and said a consultation on a zone would be carried out in June last year but has failed to take action on this, despite campaigners presenting them with evidence of the sustained intimidation and harassment that women endure outside the clinic.
Gemma Abbott, legal director at Good Law Project, told The Independent: “Camden Council have had considerable evidence of harassment provided in the form of videos, photos and witness testimony for some time. We feel strongly they need to take action. They have a legal responsibility to.”
Ms Abbott highlight that it has now been two years since evidence of harassment and abuse of women outside the Whitfield Street Clinic, which is run by MSI Reproductive Choices, had first been provided.
She added that while the pandemic had a part to play in the delay, “This is too long. The urgency which arises in this context is around women needing to be able to access abortions without fear, intimidation and harassment.
“The decision of whether you should have an abortion or not is intensely personal and sensitive. It is incumbent on the council to take urgent steps to implement buffer zones.
“The harassment can have a particularly acute impact because people are more likely to be feeling emotional than when they are accessing other healthcare.”
Ms Abbott argued it is not “a problem that starts or ends in Camden” and is a national issue which requires a country-wide solution – adding that she is “hopeful” action in the central London borough can be the start of a national policy to tackle the problem.
“The public nature of the harassment is damaging and undermines the confidential nature of healthcare,” Ms Abbott added. “It is the government’s responsibility to step up and enact national legislation to protect women, pregnant people and abortion clinic staff from harassment and intimidation. Until they do that, the obligation falls to local councils.”
The letter sent to the council states anti-abortion protesters sought to “intimidate, harass and interact with service users to prevent them from having abortions and to seek the closure of the clinic” as it warns demonstrators continued to target the site during the pandemic.
The government rejected calls for the introduction of buffer zones barring anti-abortion demonstrations outside clinics across the UK in October 2018.
Louise McCudden, of MSI Reproductive Choices, a leading abortion provider which runs the Camden clinic, said: “People are called murderers and baby killers, sometimes they shout ‘mum’ or ‘mummy’ at people outside clinics. They also disseminate medical misinformation with no scientific basis outside clinics,” including erroneous claims that terminations cause breast cancer.
The campaigner, who is currently travelling around England to examine harassment outside abortion clinics, said the goal of anti-abortion protesters is to prevent women from accessing “legitimate time-sensitive” healthcare – adding buffer zones do not impede the right to free speech as people still hold the right to protest but just not directly outside the clinics.
“Sometimes somebody will delay treatment because of protesters,” Ms McCudden added. “This is having a medical impact. Every abortion we provide is safe but the earlier you have an abortion, the safer it is. If the protesters were outside a pharmacy distributing vaccines with anti-vaccine material, I imagine the local authorities would probably find a way to move them on.”
Last Autumn The Independent reported that anti-abortion protesters have deterred women seeking abortions from going into clinics as well as entering healthcare services to hunt down staff. Abortion providers at the time warned the protesters put the health of thousands of women at risk as they infringed coronavirus restrictions.
A spokesperson for Camden Council said: “We will be considering and responding to the letter submitted to the council by the Good Law Project and Sister Supporter in due course.
“While we won’t comment on any specific cases, we want Camden to be a safe and equal place for everyone who lives in and visits the borough.”
The representative urged anyone who “witnesses harmful or hateful behaviour” or who personally endures it to come forward – adding that they will be able to receive “help and support”.
A spokesperson for the Home Office added: “It is completely unacceptable that anyone should feel harassed or intimidated.
“The police and local authorities have powers to restrict harmful protests and we expect them to take action in such cases. We recognise the importance of this matter and keep it under review.”