A small step towards combatting harassment

I cannot endorse strongly enough the idea of introducing buffer zones around abortion clinics, as floated by Labour.

The central London ward where I am a councillor has hosted two clinics, each of which has long been the target of protests. Over the years we have sought to deal with this I have had reports of protestors blocking women’s entry into the buildings, gory material that would not win an 18 rating shoved into people’s hands, and even of nuns rattling buckets of plastic foetuses at women as they attempt to pass by.

It is a politically diverse area where not everyone agrees on everything. But it is an issue that enrages locals, and which has seen people come to my surgery from across London and beyond to ask how they can help.

We looked at all sorts of things – health and safety law, prosecutions for harassment, seeking injunctions. But we always came up against some brick wall or other. The law does not stretch to that, it is too complicated, it is too expensive. The police encouraged those who had been harassed to come forward. But who wants to relive some of the most difficult moments of their lives in this way? And, in any case, one successful prosecution may well not halt the tide of protestors coming after.

We need to be mindful of unintended consequences. The right to disagree and to vocalise that in a visible way needs to remain. Not far away from the clinics in my ward stands the Chinese embassy, which itself often sees protests outside it, and for good reason. We should all be queasy at any solution to the clinics issue restricting the ability to demonstrate about other causes. But visitors to Marie Stopes or BPAS are not in the same category as those attending an embassy. An understanding of the particularity of the sites can be built in and recognised by the law. Sensitive sites are already acknowledged by licensing law and they influence licensing decisions. Nearby, protests outside the Church of Scientology on Tottenham Court Road take place across the street and behind a barrier.

A buffer zone for a small number of carefully agreed and publicly identified sites is not that much to ask and tilts the balance of power, and even then perhaps only a little, in favour of the women and their families visiting the clinics.

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Adam Harrison is deputy editor of Progress and a councillor in the London borough of Camden. He tweets @AdamDKHarrison

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Photo: Elvert Barnes

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