In addition to exploring what existing powers it has to protect abortion clinics, Portsmouth City Council (PCC) has stated its support for national legislation to introduce ‘buffer zones’ around these sites. Sarah Cheverton reports.
Following more than a month of protests by religious anti-abortionists in 2017, pressure group 40 Days for Life has announced a follow-up protest running from 14th February to 25th March. Although the current campaign has not yet attracted the same number of protesters as last year’s, PCC is considering what local powers it has to introduce a ‘buffer zone’ to prevent women being targeted while they access abortion services.
On 14th November 2017, Cllr Will Purvis proposed a motion that PCC should explore ‘every possible option, including the use of a Public Spaces Protection Order, to create a “buffer zone” around [St Mary’s Hospital] to provide the necessary reassurance and security that all women need and deserve as they make their own personal decision about their pregnancy.’
The motion followed considerable opposition to the religious protests by local residents. Thirty-one councillors voted in favour, one voted against the motion, and three abstained.
Cllr Purvis told S&C, ‘Having met with the Anti Social Behaviour team at the council today, work is going on to explore all of the options to introduce the buffer zone at St Mary’s. It is challenging because of the different landowners and the number of different, often not ideal legal powers, but they are working up proposals to implement a long-term solution as soon as possible.
‘In the meantime, they have been working with the police, community wardens and hospital security to prepare for any issues with the current protests.
‘The council also responded to the Government’s consultation on buffer zones calling for their introduction nationally through primary legislation.’
Cllr Purvis said the Council’s response to the government’s Abortion Clinic Protest Review consultation was ‘definitely in support of national legislation’ and was based on his notice of motion to PCC last year (see below). The consultation closed on 19th February.
Chris Francis, manager of the BPAS Clinic at St Mary’s Hospital told S&C:
‘Based on our experience around the country, we believe a buffer zone is the only way to solve the problem of harassment and intimidation outside clinics. They are the only way to preserve the confidentiality of our patients and prevent the distress caused by these groups.
‘We support the council in everything that they’re doing and look forward to them following in the footsteps of Ealing and Lambeth in making use of their existing powers. At the same time, our latest figures suggest that in the last 12 months, 42 clinics across the UK have experienced protests – and for that reason we support a national solution for this national problem. That’s why we told the Home Office, during their consultation on clinic protests, that we want to see new legislation to address this problem.’
In response to the increasing number of clinics across the UK targeted by religious anti-abortion protesters, several local authorities, including Ealing, Lambeth, Leeds and Manchester, have also announced they will explore the implementation of buffer zones.
Ealing was the first council in the UK to advocate the policy and recently launched a consultation for residents on, according to its website, ‘a proposed Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) outside the Marie Stopes clinic. The “safe zone” is being proposed in Ealing to stop harassment and intimidation for women visiting the clinic and also improve the quality of life for residents.
‘A PSPO acts as a tool with additional powers that council officers and the local police are able to use when needed to tackle anti-social behaviour within the area.’
On 23rd January, the Cabinet Member for Communities, Safety and Leisure at Southwark Council said the authority ‘doesn’t have enough evidence‘ of harassment by anti-abortion activists to bring in PSPO restrictions on protests outside a local abortion clinic, despite councillors unanimously backing such measures in November 2017.
Should PCC decide to use a PSPO to introduce a buffer zone preventing protests outside St Mary’s Hospital, a public consultation would be required.
Labour MP for Portsmouth South, Stephen Morgan, gave his support for national legislation last year, following local counter-protests against anti-abortionists who picketed St Mary’s Hospital. Mr Morgan told S&C:
Given how difficult and stressful the decision about having an abortion must be, it is vital that women are able to access confidential medical and psychological advice and support without fear of harassment or intimidation. The police say that existing public order legislation is insufficient to keep the pavement a safe space.The Government should look at what it can do to ensure that women can attend sensitive health care appointments and that health care workers can do their jobs without fear of harassment or abuse.
S&C has asked Conservative MP for Portsmouth North, Penny Mordaunt, if she supports the use of local or national powers to implement buffer zones. We have yet to receive a response from Ms Mordaunt.
Find out more
- Read coverage on last year’s protests here
- Why are the British Pregnancy Advisory Service calling on government to introduce national legislation for buffer zones? Find out about the #BackOff campaign
- Does introducing a buffer zone infringe on the right to protest? Read Catholic bishop John Sherrington’s response to the government’s consultation, arguing against buffer zones and Professor of Ethics at Brighton University, Arianne Shahvisi, arguing that buffer zones do not infringe on the right to protest
- Read Cllr Purvis’ motion passed in November 2017 below
The motion proposed by Cllr Purvis and passed by Portsmouth City Council last November to explore the introduction of a buffer zone is as follows:
This Council notes the recent activities of anti-abortion protestors outside the main entrance of the St Mary’s Hospital Health Campus in Milton, the location of the British Pregnancy Advice Service clinic.
This Council also recognises the concerns of staff and those seeking treatment at the clinic, for example one patient said “It made an extremely difficult decision even more horrendous than it could/should have been… I suffer from mental health problems and I felt the comments made by protesters significantly increased my anxiety… No one should ever have to deal with that.”
This motion is explicitly not one for or against abortion, which is available in Great Britain in the circumstances laid out in the Abortion Act 1967. This Council believes that all individuals should be protected from harassment and intimidation when accessing legally existing health services, and that local residents should not to be exposed to related disruption and distress on a daily basis.
The right to protest needs to be balanced with the right of pregnant women to choose and to obtain advice and treatment in confidence and free from intimidation. Those who wish to campaign against abortion have plenty of opportunities and locations in which to do so. The area outside a clinic need not and should not be one of them.
This Council asks the Cabinet to do all within its powers to prevent anti-abortion protestors from intimidating and harassing women outside the St Mary’s Hospital, and its entrances.
The Council also notes the steps taken by Ealing Council to pursue a Public Space Protection Order to prevent harassment of women accessing pregnancy advice services in their Borough.
This Council therefore requests that a report be brought to the Cabinet Member for Community Safety fully exploring every possible option, including the use of a Public Spaces Protection Order, to create a ‘buffer zone’ around this location to provide the necessary reassurance and security that all women need and deserve as they make their own personal decision about their pregnancy.
What do you think? If the council launches a consultation, are you in favour of a buffer zone or against? Tell us in the comments box below.
Main photo by Sarah Cheverton.