All women deserve the right to make their own pregnancy choices in privacy and dignity. And the lengths one London council is being forced to go to in order to enable women to access abortion care free from harassment shows exactly why nationwide action is needed.
The Court of Appeal this week ruled that a buffer zone introduced by Ealing Council is legal. It forces protesters to stand 100m away from the area's Marie Stopes abortion clinic - which, for years, was beset by anti-abortion activists brandishing religious pamphlets and shouting "murderer" at the women going through its doors.
The judges' decision to uphold the buffer zone, which was first introduced in April 2018, unanimously dismissed the challenge against it brought by anti-choice campaigners.
It is a landmark victory. But, sadly, it may not be the end of the road for this particular campaign against women, with a further appeal still possible.
It is also clear that while this Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) has been extremely effective in moving anti-abortion activity away from the clinic doors in Ealing, it has placed a significant burden on that trailblazing council.
This is a national problem and it requires a national solution. Last year, the then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid rejected calls for government legislation for buffer zones, despite overwhelming evidence from clinic users, staff and local residents of the suffering it causes around the country. Of the harassment they suffer, day in and day out. A leaked report from the Manchester Marie Stopes International centre earlier this year, detailed the daily abuse faced by the clinic’s staff, who said that facing protestors had become part of their routine.
Since then, there have been anti-abortion protests at 32 separate clinics and hospitals, including a US-backed campaign that saw vigils held outside 10 UK clinics over the period of Lent, for 12 hours a day.
It is unrealistic and unfair to expect individual councils, who are already under immense budgetary pressure, to dedicate significant time and resources to pursuing local PSPOs against what is a national problem.
In September, the UK denomination of Texas-based campaign group 40 Days For Life will begin six weeks of continuous “vigils” outside abortion clinics across the country. The numbers of campaigners who take part may be small - we are an overwhelmingly pro-choice country - yet they can nevertheless have a profoundly negative impact on women.
Buffer zones don’t stop people campaigning against abortion - in a democratic society there are plenty of ways and means to do that. And they certainly do not stop people seeking to support women who wish to continue their pregnancies.
They simply acknowledge that the pavement outside a clinic is not a space for people to insert themselves, unsolicited, in the very personal process of seeking regulated advice and care, and they are a proportionate response to the well documented harm and distress their presence causes women.
Today’s judgement confirms that buffer zones are legal and necessary. We are calling on the Home Secretary Priti Patel to listen to the voices of women, medical bodies, and women’s rights organisations, and look again at the case for national legislation.
It’s time to make sure every woman across the UK can access pregnancy advice and abortion care - free from harassment and intimidation by strangers in the street outside.