Abortion is an extremely sensitive and emotive problem that engenders passionate views on both sides. I think it is important that anyone considering an abortion receives impartial, non-directive and clinical information on pregnancy in order to make an informed choice. I would support any measure to extend that information within the necessarily tight time-frame available, and to enable women to make a valid choice which will have the least ill-effect on their long-term well-being.
Given how difficult and stressful this decision is, it is vital that women are able to access confidential unbiased medical and psychological advice and support without fear of harassment or intimidation. I stood on a manifesto at the last General Election that pledged to continue to ensure a woman’s right to a safe, legal abortion if that is their informed choice.
Of course, everyone has the right to peaceful protest against policies or practices with which they disagree. However, I do not agree that that should extend to protests aimed at specific people who are attempting to exercise their personal choices. I am very concerned by reports of women facing intimidation from protesters as they enter abortion clinics. No one should feel in any way harassed or intimidated simply for exercising their legal right to healthcare advice.
There is some controversy over whether existing public order legislation is sufficient to keep the pavement a safe space. I am aware that other countries around the world, such as the US and France, have introduced a number of measures including buffer zones, in order to strengthen the ability of the authorities to protect women’s right to choice. I think it makes sense for the UK to learn from the strengths and weaknesses of practice in those countries.
The Government has said that it will carefully consider this issue, and work with the police and local authorities to ensure they are able to make full use of their existing powers to prevent intimidating behaviour. It will also explore whether any further action is needed. However, I am inclined to support any measure which will remove the element of protest in principle from the vicinity of those people who are trying to make the best particular choice for themselves in their own specific circumstances.
Nobody should feel uncomfortable accessing services or going about their daily routines. I believe we must therefore ensure that women seeking advice, as well as staff working in clinics, are safe and feel safe, and do not feel intimidated or dissuaded from making the choices that they have properly decided upon. I believe that the Government should consider buffer zones as a contribution to that assurance.