* Draft Letter
I am very sorry to hear about the recent harassment of MPs by far-right groups outside the Houses of Parliament. No one should be able to impose their views on others in an intimidating and harassing manner. Neither should people have access to their workplace obstructed in a frightening and aggressive way. The House of Commons Speaker, Mr John Bercow, was quoted as saying “there seems to be a pattern of protest targeted in particular…at women” (Metro, 09/01/19).
Last year, Ealing Council implemented the UK’s first buffer zone outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing. Women are now able to access health care free from the harassing and intimidating behaviour they had previously been subject to by anti-choice groups stationed outside the clinic. This included name-calling, physical assault and obstruction. This is behaviour that disproportionately affects women and pregnant people.
As your constituent, I am writing to ask for your support for national legislation implementing buffer zones outside all abortion clinics. I am aware that the harassment of women accessing legal abortion provision continues in approximately 42 other areas in the UK. You can’t deny a parallel between the recent experience of MPs and the harassment of clinic users. Ealing’s clinic was affected for 23 years. It seems unlikely that Parliament would countenance MPs suffering harassment for this long. In his letter to Commissioner Dick, John Bercow said “It is frankly intolerable if Members of Parliament and journalists cannot go about their lawful business without being ritually insulted, abused, intimidated, threatened and harassed”. We entirely agree with this. We would add that the right of women and pregnant people to access a legal healthcare service free from those very same behaviours is just as important.
In the Metro, John Bercow said: “Peaceful protest is a vital democratic freedom, but so is the right of elected members to go about their business without being threatened or abused”. For too long the rights of anti-choice groups have far outweighed those of clinic users and staff. Ealing Council had to consider this when consulting on the buffer zone in Ealing, and yet the Government is not looking to balance this nationally.
MP Soubry has spoken publicly about her experience; the language used could be an almost direct quote from outside any Clinic. “There was a moment when I tried to get into the entrance…where a man came in front of me and I didn’t know who he was…I did feel very exposed and completely left to my own devices…completely unprotected” (A. Soubry 09/01/19). Marie Stopes kept an anonymous log book that included experiences such as ‘client grabbed on arm to stop them entering, described as aggressive’, ‘client reported protestors obstructing entrance and sent them away from clinic’, ‘the guy out the front pounced on my daughter and made her cry…this is harassment!’
I hope you agree that it would be contradictory to say that it is unacceptable for MPs to be treated in this way, but fine for Clinic users – predominantly women. One in three of your female constituents will have an abortion in her lifetime. These women deserve the right to dignity and anonymity in an already difficult circumstance. Imagine experiencing the recent intimidating behaviour that MP Soubry describes, but just before and just after a highly sensitive medical procedure where you may be in physical and emotional pain. The lasting effect of this behaviour can be incredibly negative and damaging. Many women report suffering from PTSD at the hands of these ‘protestors’. Ms Soubry was able to use a different entrance to access Parliament to avoid the protestors, that is not something that clinic users have the choice to do. They are forced to run the gauntlet for no discernible reason, other than the lack of Government action. You may be aware of the letter written by MP Rupa Huq and signed by 114 cross -party MPs (11/05/18) that called for the Home Office to look into a national solution for clinic protection. The Home Office, under Mr Sajid Javid, published a disappointing response to Ms Rudd’s review, saying that it it would disproportionate to curtain anti-choice protests because there were too few negatively-affected clinic users. 100,000s of women have been, and continue to be, negatively affected. It seems that the Home Office feels is acceptable collateral damage. At least 60 MPs have also sent letters to Commissioner Dick – rightly asking for protection. We ask them to do the same to protect the huge number of people harassed outside abortion clinics. While the police have powers that they could utilise to end harassment outside Parliament, as well as abortion clinics, they repeatedly choose not to.
The Minister of Health for the Republic of Ireland has said he will legislate for buffer zones as part of the new laws surrounding abortion access. The Isle of Man has also included buffer zones in their recent abortion legislation. The UK needs to keep step with these changes.
I hope that the recent situation outside parliament, and the clear parallels raised in this letter, will encourage you to support the call for a national solution to the harassment of women outside abortion clinics. If two weeks of harassment of MPs is unacceptable, then 23 years of harassment of women and pregnant people is abhorrent.