Charities call for urgent review of decision to reject buffer zones after evidence of women’s experience outside abortion clinics suppressed in flawed consultation

  • A coalition of charities and medical bodies has today written to the Home Secretary Priti Patel to urge her to reconsider the case for buffer zones, amid serious concerns about the process that led her predecessor to reject them.
  • In September 2018, the then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid dismissed calls for buffer zones around abortion clinics following a public consultation.  
  • FOI documents released today by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, bpas, suggest the process was a foregone conclusion with one civil servant recorded as stating “there is need to be seen to do something but don’t want to actually do something.”
  • The report of the consultation provided to Mr Javid by civil servants to inform his decision “underplays and misrepresents” the experiences of clinic staff and women, despite receiving a database containing testimony from 1300 individuals.
  • The report does not critically evaluate assertions made by anti-choice groups about their use of cameras outside clinics, nor does the report include any of the evidence of women and clinic staff who were filmed by these groups.
  • The report appears to accept the protesters’ claims that they offer women the “right information to make an informed choice”, and does not balance this assertion with evidence provided by highly respected medical bodies that the groups provide “grossly erroneous” information.
  • Since Mr Javid’s rejection of buffer zones, 34 clinics in England and Wales have experienced anti-abortion activity, with 5 never having experienced this before.

Charities and medical bodies have today written to the Home Secretary Priti Patel MP to ask for an urgent review of a 2018 Home Office consultation after documents obtained via an FOI request suggest that the report provided to then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid by civil servants was an “incomplete and inequitable presentation of evidence”.

The Home Office review of anti-abortion protests was launched in November 2017 by Amber Rudd MP and included a public consultation which received submissions from individuals affected by protests, medical bodies, and women’s rights organisations. Following the review, Sajid Javid announced in September 2018 that the government would not take any action on this issue.

The coalition is concerned by the lack of balance of evidence within the report and that the outcome of the review was a foregone conclusion. In the minutes from a workshop to consider the evidence for buffer zones, a civil servant is recorded as stating “there is a need to be seen to do something but don’t actually want to do something.”

One of the central issues raised by the coalition is that “the experiences of women are consistently underplayed and misrepresented” within the evidence pack report. While the report repeatedly describes the protests as causing women to feel ‘embarrassment’ and being made to feel ‘uncomfortable’, a database submitted by bpas of more than 1300 responses provided mentioned embarrassment only 9 times – while significantly more women described feelings of ‘intimidation’, ‘harassment’, ‘distress’, and being made to feel ‘vulnerable.’

Moreover, the coalition is also concerned about lack of critical evaluation of the protesters’ claims. One example appears in the report’s discussion of activists carrying cameras outside abortion clinics:

“They [the protesters] have camera to film activity – demonstrators mention they’re for protection of themselves only. They are not breaking any laws filming.”

The report does not balance this statement a discussion about the potential breach of the right to privacy, nor any of the evidence which was provided by women and clinic staff who had experienced filming:

“I entered the clinic and 2 protesters had cameras filming me. I asked them to stop and they just laughed. It was an invasion of my privacy. What were they going to use it for? Did this put my safety in jeopardy?” bpas client

“Domestics within the hospital noticed a man dressed in a light blue cassock and a woman in plain clothes walking into [the] clinic… The pair were hiding a camera and filming. The hospital security team was called and the pair were asked to return to the ground floor of the hospital where the police were called. I was told that the police deleted images and film from the camera.” Bpas staff member

The report repeats the protesters’ claim that they need cameras for self-protection, but does not include any of the evidence submitted by clinic staff, who had concerns about their own safety and that of their clients:

“Client attended yesterday with her partner who did not want her to have an abortion. Client has advised us that he is violent towards her. Today client attended alone for the EMA 1st part, whilst here in the unit she received a call from her partner saying he knows that she is here. Also she received a text message from one of the protesters telling her not to go ahead with the abortion. It has transpired that her partner gave one of the protesters his and her mobile numbers.”

“[I feel] very intimidated. Every day now I enter and leave work via the back door to avoid the confrontation and them running towards me as I walk in the front gate. I don’t leave work to go for lunch anymore... I sit away from the staff room window so they cannot see me.. . I have had to advise my sister and partner to come via the back door when collecting me from work... I am cautious about driving my car to work so they don’t know the car I drive or my number plate.” Bpas staff member

The report states that the groups offered “leaflets and verbal advice on support that would be available to women if they decide to continue their pregnancy.” The report does not include evidence contradicting this claim which was submitted by highly respected medical bodies:

“Some of our members highlight that activity includes.. giving out very medically inaccurate and emotionally charged leaflets about what happens during and after an abortion.” Submission from  the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

“[Television footage shows protesters] giving women unsolicited ‘advice’, which is contrary to that provided by doctors, and grossly erroneous information about clinical risks, such as linking abortion with breast cancer. Unfortunately, this type of activity is not unusual, nor is it confined to a few clinics.” Submission from the BMA

No evidence from medical bodies was included in the evidence pack.

The letter, signed by more than 30 organisations and individuals, reads:

Based on these shortcomings in the evidence provided to the Minister, we would like to invite you as the new Home Secretary to ask for a full review of the evidence provided and to look again at the possibility of introducing national buffer zones to put a stop to protests at the clinic gate. It is a measure that is supported by many MPs of all parties, more than 150 of whom have signed letters to your predecessors indicating their desire for action.  Ultimately, this is not a question about abortion, but about the ability of women to access legal and essential medical care without fear of harassment or intimidation.”

The letter can be read in full here.

ENDS

For media enquiries please call 0207 061 3377, 07788 725 185 or email press@bpas.org.

Notes to Editors:

About bpas

bpas is a charity which sees more than 80,000 women a year for reproductive healthcare services including pregnancy counselling, abortion care, miscarriage management and contraception, at clinics across the UK. It supports and advocates for reproductive choice. More information can be found at bpas.org.