As recently as 2020, we were lamenting whether there would ever be national safe access zones (also sometimes called ‘buffer zones’). Now, as we celebrate safe access zones being signed into law across England and Wales, MSI UK’s Head of External Affairs Louise McCudden reflects on the journey to reach this point – and what happens next for anti-choice activity?
England’s first abortion clinic safe access zone
Even at a local level, safe access zones have been a tough fight. But an important one. In 2018, MSI Reproductive Choices UK’s Ealing (West London) clinic became the first in the country to benefit from a safe access zone. Ealing Council voted unanimously for the policy, in no small part as a result of the powerful testimonies shared by clients and by MSI UK team members about their experiences of anti-choice harassment.
The council listened to MSI UK and our allies including grassroots activists Sister Supporter, and the national BackOff campaign, led by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas). Following a public consultation, during which the council heard not only from MSI UK and our pro-choice allies, but from local residents who were sick of hearing or experiencing the anti-choice groups as they went about their daily business, Ealing Council agreed to introduce a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) which would protect MSI UK’s clinic from harassment within 300 metres.
The local safe access zone was incredibly beneficial for those accessing the clinic whether as a client, to support a client, or as a team member. Our clinic manager Sally O’Brien described her journey to work before the safe access zone as “running a gauntlet.” We heard stories of relief from clients compared with the anxiety, fear, and shame that anti-choice groups could sometimes cause.
But the local safe access zone in Ealing had a greater significance. It was challenged in court by anti-choice groups, and, when upheld as lawful by the High Court and the Court of Appeal, established the legal precedent that safe access zones did not violate the rights of anti-choice activists by asking them to move 300 metres away before expressing their views. Eventually, Richmond, Manchester, Bournemouth and Birmingham councils followed suit, introducing PSPOs and transforming the experience of those providing and accessing care in these areas.
Securing safe access zones across England and Wales
Whilst it is great that local councils introduced safe access zones in the form of Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) in these areas, the right to have a safe abortion in private and with dignity should not depend upon where you live. Despite having 60+ clinics across England, for a long time, MSI UK only had two safe access zones around our clinics in Ealing and Manchester, meaning that our other clients across the country were still facing anti-choice harassment and intimidation outside of our clinics. This is why we had to continue our fight for national legislation, and to put this postcode lottery of harassment to an end.
In Northern Ireland, Assembly Member Clare Bailey (herself a former MSI UK clinic escort) successfully introduced the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill, and in Scotland, the government has committed to exploring similar options.
It was Rupa Huq, the MP for Ealing Central and Acton, who, on seeing the impact harassment was having on women and others in her constituency when accessing care from MSI UK, made several attempts to introduce legislation that would protect clinics nationwide. Last year, with the support of MSI UK and our sector partners, Stella Creasy’s amendment to introduce safe access zones of 150 metres around all clinics, hospitals, or other licensed premises providing abortion, was passed by the House of Commons and driven through the House of Lords by Baroness Liz Sugg with cross party backing.
Safe access zones are now signed into law, covering every facility providing abortion across England and Wales. We see no reason why the safe access zones can’t be up and running by the end of summer – and once implemented, these zones will be a major step towards securing abortion access for everyone who needs it, without stigma, shame, or harassment.
To find out more
To read more about safe access zones and why we have been campaigning for national legislation, read our blogs at the links below:
- Why we advocate for national legislation on abortion clinic buffer zones
- Will there ever be abortion clinic buffer zones?
To read more about safe access zones currently in place around our clinics in West London and Manchester, click on the links below: