Open Letter to MPs who seek to ban anti-abortion protests

Women attending abortion clinics should not be harassed


Proposed clause undermines free speech & the right to protest


London, UK – 6 July 2021


To Members of Parliament:

There are proposals before parliament that would ban all anti-abortion protests that take place within 150 metres of an abortion clinic, even if peaceful and silent. The maximum penalty for any violations would be two years jail – an extremely harsh penalty.

These proposals are set out in New Clause 42 to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill.

I would respectfully urge you to consider carefully the implications of NC 42 for freedom of speech and the right to protest.

I support a woman’s right to choose. I also defend free speech and the right to protest, including for people I disagree with. For these reasons, although I oppose anti-abortion campaigners, I nevertheless support their right to express their point of view more liberally than would be permitted by NC 42.

Proposed by MP Rupa Huq, NC 42 laudably seeks to outlaw any anti-abortion protest that “impedes or threatens; or intimidates or harasses” clinic users. I agree that such behaviour should be unlawful.

However, NC 42 goes much further. Rupa wants to create a ”buffer zone” of 150 metres around abortion clinics, where any individual who “interferes with any person’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services” would be committing a serious criminal offence.

What constitutes interference is open to subjective interpretation. So NC 42 spells out that it includes actions, or attempted actions, that seek to “influence”, “advise”, “inform” or express an “opinion” about abortion services. This is an extremely broad and sweeping limitation on the right to protest.

While it is reasonable to have some buffer zone around abortion clinics to protect vulnerable women from feeling under pressure, is it really necessary to stretch this exclusion area to 150 metres (the length of one and a half football pitches)? It seems a rather arbitrary distance and much further than is required to make women feel unhindered when attending clinics.

Section (3) (f) of NC 42 amendment is particularly far reaching. It criminalises a person within the buffer zone who “informs or attempts to inform about abortion services by any means, including, without limitation, graphic, physical, verbal or written means.” This would outlaw leaflets, placards, banners, prayers and the spoken word of any description. In other words, censorship.

This strikes me as a disproportionate and unjustifiable restriction on the right to free expression. The fact is that many anti-abortion protests are not held right outside clinics and are low-key vigils that pose no threat to any woman seeking a termination.

NC 42 is well intended. But the all-compassing nature of what it proposes risks having a bad outcome for civil liberties. Of course, Rupa Huq argues that anti-abortion activists will still be able to protest, just not within 150 metres of an abortion clinic. But isn’t this a bit like telling women’s rights campaigners that they can protest against sexist workplace discrimination but not outside the headquarters of the offending companies?

There have to be strong, compelling reasons to restrict freedom of expression. The supporters of NC42 have not proven that the constraints they propose on opponents of abortion are proportionate, necessary and justifiable.

 Yours sincerely, Peter Tatchell