The House of Lords has been urged to back a Bill today which would give the police wider powers to clampdown on protests against patients and staff at abortion clinics in England and Wales.
Peers are due to debate the Government's controversial Public Order Bill, which was originally conceived to combat disruption by climate action groups such as Extinction Rebellion. Since then, human rights organisations, trade unions, community and faith bodies, and other parties have opposed many of the planned measures on the grounds that they amount to "a gross expansion of police powers", including increasing the scope for suspicion-less stop and search.
The Bill passed its Commons stages in October 2022 by 276 votes to 231 in the face of opposition from 163 Labour and 39 SNP members, and with 75 Conservatives abstaining.
Amendment Proposed Protection Zones for Abortion Clinics
Measures to protect abortion services stemmed from an amendment that would introduce buffer zones around clinics where it would be an offence to interfere, intimidate, or harass patients or staff.
Ahead of Monday's debate, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) published a report highlighting the need for safe access zones, with both organisations urging peers to back the Bill. It said that of 50 clinics and hospitals targeted by protestors in the last 5 years, only five were protected using Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs). The orders, applied for by a local authority, were expensive to introduce and maintain, it said.
The report highlighted the harmful effect on wellbeing for both patients and staff, with one healthcare worker at a Bournemouth clinic recounting being followed to her car by a protestor shouting 'murderer'.
Both bodies said that introducing 150 metre zones would ensure that all patients had equal access to legal healthcare without fear of harassment, and that all staff who provide that healthcare would be spared having to walk past protestors as they attended their place of work.
'Opportunity to End Intimidation'
Dr Ranee Thakar, president of the RCOG, said: "Women have the right to access essential healthcare without fear of intimidation or harassment. It is unacceptable that there is a postcode lottery where only a very few clinics are protected by Public Spaces Protection Orders. National legislation must be introduced to stop anti-choice organisations imposing stigma, guilt, and shame on those accessing, and providing this essential health service. This would not be tolerated for any other area of healthcare."
Dr Janet Barter, president of the FSRH, said peers had an opportunity today "to end the intimidation of staff who are providing a lawful and necessary sexual and reproductive healthcare service".
The amendment to introduce safe zones around abortion clinics was tabled by Stella Creasy (Labour, Walthamstow) at the Bill's report stage in the Commons, and would make it an offence within a defined zone to interfere "with any person's decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services". Under the scope of the clause, an offence, punishable in a first instance by a fine and/or up to 6 months in jail, would include attempting to advise, persuade, or express an opinion about abortion.
Peers are due to vote on the Bill at its report stage in the House of Lords on Monday.