Buffer zones around abortion clinics are needed says councillor

A local councillor has backed Labour’s call for new laws to stop women being intimidated and harassed outside birth control clinics by US-styled anti-abortion protesters.

Marie Stopes blue plaque.

Marie Stopes clinic in Whitfield Street has been the site of anti-abortion protests.

Adam Harrison, who has been a Camden Labour councillor since 2010, writes in Progress magazine in response to an announcement by shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper MP who is calling on the government to address the increasing US imported anti-abortion protests with new measures to protect patients and healthcare staff.

“Women need to be able to attend sensitive health care appointments — including abortion services — without facing intimidation and harassment. And health care workers need to be able to do their jobs without intimidation too.

“We don’t want the kind of harassment and abuse that we’ve seen in the US imported into Britain,” said Yvette Cooper on Monday.

In Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia protests have been taking place in recent years outside the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) in Bedford Square and Marie Stopes in Whitfield Street. Protesters — often men — have been seen standing immediately outside the clinics, approaching women who enter and handing them leaflets.

In March 2012 police were called to Bedford Square after complaints about anti-abortion protesters filming women entering and leaving the BPAS clinic.

Now Harrison has welcomed his party’s call for action to be taken.

“I cannot endorse strongly enough the idea of introducing buffer zones around abortion clinics,” says the Bloomsbury ward councillor.

“The central London ward where I am a councillor has hosted two clinics, each of which has long been the target of protests.

“Over the years we have sought to deal with this I have had reports of protestors blocking women’s entry into the buildings, gory material that would not win an 18 rating shoved into people’s hands, and even of nuns rattling buckets of plastic foetuses at women as they attempt to pass by,” he writes.

“It is an issue that enrages locals, and which has seen people come to my surgery from across London and beyond to ask how they can help.”

Harrison says that existing laws do not address this new form of protest which is becoming increasingly common.

“We looked at all sorts of things — health and safety law, prosecutions for harassment, seeking injunctions. But we always came up against some brick wall or other.

“The police encouraged those who had been harassed to come forward. But who wants to relive some of the most difficult moments of their lives in this way? And, in any case, one successful prosecution may well not halt the tide of protestors coming after,” he says.

However Harrison says a balance has to be struck between the right to protest and the right not to be harassed or intimidated. He warms about any change in the law that would prevent free speech and legitimate forms of protest.

“We need to be mindful of unintended consequences. The right to disagree and to vocalise that in a visible way needs to remain. Not far away from the clinics in my ward stands the Chinese embassy, which itself often sees protests outside it, and for good reason.

“We should all be queasy at any solution to the clinics issue restricting the ability to demonstrate about other causes. But visitors to Marie Stopes or BPAS are not in the same category as those attending an embassy.

“A buffer zone for a small number of carefully agreed and publicly identified sites is not that much to ask and tilts the balance of power, and even then perhaps only a little, in favour of the women and their families visiting the clinics,” he says.

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