James Cleverly waters down ban on abortion clinic protests

Home office guidance would allow anti-abortion campaigners to engage in discussion with patients and conduct 'silent prayer' within buffer zoens

James Cleverly on a mobile phone

The home secretary James Cleverly has watered down the new rules banning protests outside abortion centres. A new law, designed to create ‘buffer zones’ around health facilities where abortions are carried out was backed by MPs last year. The ‘buffer zones’ were intended to prevent anti-abortion campaigners from holding protests or handing out leaflets within 150 metres of abortion clinics.

However, draft Home Office guidance appears to water these rules down substantially, as first reported by the i. Under the guidance, anti-abortion campaigners would be permitted to approach people attending clinics, conduct ‘silent prayer’ and to and engage in discussion with patients, all inside the 150 metre buffer zones.

The guidance says that within buffer zones, people will still be prevented from ‘influencing’ people within the buffer zones, but goes on to say that “The Government would expect ‘influence’ to require more than
mere mention of abortion or the provision of information. As such, informing, discussing or offering help does not necessarily amount to ‘influence’.” It adds that ‘silent prayer’ “should not, on its own, be considered to be an offence under any circumstances”.

The Home Office guidance goes on to say: “It would not normally be in the public interest for police to take action unless they reasonably believe that the acts/behaviour in question would have a direct link to
any person’s decision to access abortion services, or would obstruct or impede such access. Nor would it generally be in the public interest for officers to pursue criminal proceedings where there is no evidence that anyone was in fact influenced, obstructed, harassed, alarmed or distressed.”

As the i highlights, provisions to allow for ‘silent prayer’ within buffer zones are at odds with what MPs voted for with regards to the new laws. MPs voted down amendments from the House of Lords which sought to allow ‘silent prayer’.

Speaking on the guidance, Labour MP Rupa Huq told the i: “It seems totally contrary to all logic that after MPs from all parties voted overwhelmingly to introduce robust legislation to stop women being impeded from exercising their right to use abortion clinics, based on successful existing ‘safe access zones’ in Australia and Canada, the statutory draft guidance put out for consultation seeks to undo all this and misunderstands what is happening at these clinics.”

Rachael Clarke, chief of staff of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service has highlighted the damaging effect the guidance could have. She told the i: ““The idea that standing outside a clinic for 12 hours a day watching women enter and leave, handing out leaflets telling women falsely that abortion causes breast cancer and child abuse, standing at the clinic gate every day of the week praying with a collection of blue and pink rosary beads aren’t designed to influence women would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous.”

The draft guidance would apply to England and Wales, which the initial law covers. Similar proposals are making their way through the Scottish Parliament, having been put forward by Scottish Green Party MSP Gillian Mackay.

In October 2023, the Guardian reported that women using abortion clinics were still facing harassment as a result of the Home Office delaying the implementation of the new ‘buffer zone’ rules in England and Wales.

The home office guidance is currently being consulted on until January 22. The consultation can be responded to here.

Chris Jarvis is head of strategy and development at Left Foot Forward

Image creditSimon Dawson / Number 10 – Creative Commons

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