Rupa Huq's Proposal to Restrict Protest at Abortion Clinic Passes

Ealing model to be adopted nationwide after Commons vote

Cross-party effort: Rupa Huq MP with Labour’s Stella Creasy MP and Conservative Baroness, Liz Sugg
Cross-party effort: Rupa Huq MP with Labour’s Stella Creasy MP (right) and Conservative Baroness, Liz Sugg

March 8, 2023

A proposal by Rupa Huq to create ‘safe access zones’ around abortion clinics has cleared its final parliamentary hurdle .

It adopts nationwide the model she helped get implemented which has been used to restrict activities by pro-life groups near the Marie Stopes clinic in Mattock Lane in Ealing since 2018.

The Ealing Central and Acton MP has described the overwhelming vote by MPs on Tuesday night (7 March) to pass her proposed amendment to the Public Order Bill as “an emotional moment”.

She said, “I’ve long campaigned for the Safe Access Zones to protect clinic users from intimidation and harassment, having spoken some 30 times in Parliament on this.

“Yet with 2000 women still affected from emotional distress every week up and down the country from the intrusive activities of anti-abortion protestors this was always a national problem in need of a national solution”.

Dr Huq has worked with campaigners and MPs across parties including the Conservative’s Sir Bernard Jenkin and Stella Creasy of the Labour Party to table an amendment to the Public Order Bill in order to ban any activity within a 150 metres of a clinic which could influence, impede or obstruct, or cause harassment, alarm, or distress to anybody accessing, providing, or facilitating the provision of abortion care. Under the proposed legislation, protesters found to be breaching the zones would face an unlimited fine and a criminal record.

Despite a group of Conservative and DUP MPs attempting to launch what Dr Huq called a “wrecking amendment” at the last minute, in a free vote where MPs of all parties are free to exercise conscience rather than being compelled to vote a certain way, the proposal was rejected by 116 votes to 299 ‒ a majority of 183. Among the 109 Tory MPs to vote against the so-called ‘sabotage’ amendment to legalise protest outside abortion services were the Social Care Minister Helen Whately MP and former Tory leadership contender and Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt.

The Bill has now passed its final stage in the Commons and will soon become law.

Rupa Huq standing with protesters outside Marie Stopes clinic on Mattock Lane in 2016

After the vote, Dr Huq told us, “I’ve felt strongly about this issue for decades. The anti-choicers were outside Mattock Lane from the 1990s and where Ealing leads the nation follows. Finally women will now be able to access abortion services free of intimidation and harassment, no matter where they live. It’s an emotional moment after decades of disruption in Ealing.

“The original buffer zone outside the Marie Stopes clinic has had a transformative impact for women seeking access to healthcare they are legally entitled to. Ordinary citizens have thanked me: they’re now able to use the pavement without having to avert their eyes from the clinic becoming the scene of debate, confrontation and public spectacle. The Ealing model will now be available to all women nationwide.”

During the debate, Dr Huq criticised attempts to stop Safe Access Zones from being enforced. She said, “Any person using medical services should be able to do so without navigating an obstacle course of people trying to impose their view of what is right into the process to dissuade and deter. Even in the reviled regime of Iran they got rid of their morality police. Why do we allow them here?”

She added that people can have their say but “move them away from the clinic door”.

In response to the vote, Rachael Clarke, Chief of Staff at The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) who worked closely with the local MP on the campaign, said, “We are delighted with the result in Parliament this evening, which will have a huge impact on the thousands of women who come to us every year for healthcare and who are subjected to the most unacceptable harassment at a time they should feel safe.

“Since 2014, we have seen a spread of this type of harassment across the country. The groups learn their methods from the US, and despite being told repeatedly about the impact on women, have refused to do anything about it. It is unfortunate that we have had to seek new law to address what should be a matter of basic human decency – but let it be a lesson that we will not allow the women who need us to become a hostage of groups who want to remove their rights.”

The new law was supported by a range of respected organisations including the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of General Practitioners, Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis England & Wales, Karma Nirvana, and the Fawcett Society.

However, some groups, including those supporting freedom of expression rather than being specifically anti-abortion have expressed reservations about the measure. A woman was recently arrested for silently praying near to an abortion clinic in Birmingham.

The organisation RightToLife was urging people to write to their MPs to vote against the amendment saying, “Buffer zones (also known as ‘censorship’ or ‘safe’ zones) would effectively ban and criminalise volunteers from peacefully praying and offering support to women entering abortion clinics. However, hundreds of women have been helped by pro-life vigils, and current laws already protect women if they face harassment.”

It claims the new legislation could potentially criminalise anyone within 150 metres of an abortion clinic who offered a woman practical, emotional, or financial support in order to be able to continue her pregnancy, if she were unsure about her decision.

The new law expected to come into force within months after the Public Order Bill is granted Royal Assent.

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