The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH), which represents more than 14,000 UK doctors, has issued a new position statement calling for a nationwide network of buffer zones around abortion clinics.
The statement notes that even instances of quiet protest, such as prayer, can be intimidating and that the distribution of false information can be dangerous for patients.
The move follows an intervention from Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who said she “strongly” supports calls for buffer zones to be set up.
She will chair an emergency summit on buffer zones next month, and said the Scottish Government now “actively considering” how Holyrood can legislate on the issue.
Dr Asha Kasliwal, FSRH president, said patients should be able to access services free from intimidation and staff should be able to access their workplace “free of judgment and fear”.
She said: “Harassment and intimidation outside clinics take many forms and causes great distress for women and girls accessing abortion care.
“It also makes it difficult, and demoralising, for healthcare professionals to deliver legal, essential sexual and reproductive healthcare.
“The only way to ensure patients are able to access healthcare free of harassment and intimidation is the legal implementation of buffer zones around abortion clinics across the UK.“
Dr Edward Morris, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), added: “Abortion care is an essential sexual and reproductive health service, and buffer zones must be introduced to ensure that the privacy and rights of those who access these services are respected.
“The harassment and ongoing intimidation of women and staff outside of abortion clinics is unacceptable and would not be tolerated for any other healthcare service.”
In 2018, the then-home secretary Sajid Javid decided that introducing protest-free areas outside clinics “would not be a proportionate response”, following a review.
His successor Priti Patel pledged in 2020 that the Government would again review the rules around protests in the vicinity of abortion clinics.
Some clinics have made use of Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) to protect patients and staff.
In April 2018, Ealing Council became the first council to issue an order to protect women from “intimidation, harassment and distress” outside the Marie Stopes clinic on Mattock Lane in west London.
But FSRH said these are not designed for this specific purpose, depend on local councils’ willingness, are timebound, can be expensive and produce a postcode lottery.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service said 50 new clinics have been targeted by protesters in England and Wales since the Government review in 2018. A protest in Chester started on Friday.
Clare Murphy, BPAS chief executive, said: “Anti-choice groups routinely follow women and healthcare professionals as they enter and leave clinics, display graphic banners of dismembered foetuses, and tell women that if they terminate a pregnancy, they risk breast cancer and long-term mental illness.
“We ask the Government, how many women have to suffer this cruelty before they act?”
A cross-party group of MPs has tabled an amendment to the Public Order Bill to introduce buffer zones around clinics, which is expected to be debated in June.
Ms Murphy said it would be “shameful and unforgiveable” if the Government tries to block the amendment, which would “give a green light to those harassing and intimating women seeking to access legal healthcare.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “The right to protest is a vital part of a democratic society, but it is completely unacceptable that women accessing healthcare services should feel harassed or intimidated.
“The police and local authorities have powers to restrict harmful protests and we expect them to take action in such cases.
“The issue of abortion buffer zones remains under review and we continue to monitor the prevalence of these protests with the welfare of women being at the centre of our consideration.”