Manchester city council has decided to extend its own measures for preventing women from being harassed when visiting abortion clinics due to delays in government legislation on buffer zones coming into effect.
The Public Order Act, which received royal assent in May, included an amendment which makes it a criminal offence across England and Wales to harass, obstruct or interfere with any woman attending an abortion clinic.
Protesters found guilty of breaching the buffer zones – which would extend 150 metres from the clinics – could be prosecuted and face a fine. Before the amendment passed earlier this year, local councils had taken their own measures to prevent the intimidation and harassment of women visiting abortion clinics.
In 2020 Manchester city council created the Wynnstay Grove Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), making the area surrounding the MSI Reproductive Choices Manchester Abortion Clinic a restricted area.
The council says the order was successful in preventing people from protesting outside the clinic, with “the aim of supporting pregnant women with access to lawful health services free from fear of intimidation, harassment, or distress and with an appropriate level of dignity and privacy”.
The lack of national legislation regarding buffer zones has left the matter up to the discretion of individual local authorities.
On Friday Manchester city council confirmed it had decided to renew the order, given “the lack of clarity about wider-reaching national legislation”, with the PSPO due to come into effect on Saturday.
The order was originally meant to last only three years but the council has extended it after delays in the Home Office implementing the Public Order Act.
The delays in the implementation of the legislation are causing increasing concern, given that the anti-choice campaign group 40 Days for Life is due to begin 10 days of protests across the world this month.
Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow, said: “There is no good reason for delaying the will of parliament. There is every reason to fear that in 10 days’ time women across the country will be subjected to a sustained organised and persistent attack on their right to privacy when accessing healthcare.
“It would take five minutes in parliament to enact these buffer zones. The government needs to urgently explain why they think it’s acceptable for women to be harassed at abortion clinics.”
Sarah Strutz, the senior clinical services matron at MSI UK who is based at the Manchester clinic, said before the protection order protesters would often try to give plastic foetuses to women visiting the clinic and would wear body-worn cameras, which would make women visiting the clinic fearful of their privacy.
Strutz said: “It’s hard to describe how amazing it is to have the buffer zone, and I’m really glad the Manchester zone has been renewed, but I just wish that was the case all over the country.
“The buffer zone means that clients can visit the clinic without the fear of being threatened or made to feel like they are doing something wrong.”
Louise McCudden, the UK head of external affairs at MSI Reproductive Choices, welcomed the news that Manchester council had renewed the local safe access zone surrounding the MSI centre.
McCudden said: “We have been advocating for these zones for a long time, however, the local authority should not have to do this. It’s a damning indictment of the Home Office that local authorities are having to dedicate time and resources to dealing with this issue when they are currently under huge pressure.
“Harassment outside abortion clinics is a national problem and it requires a national solution. Safe access zone legislation was introduced into national law in May, so why has it not been implemented? The right to get an abortion with privacy and dignity, free from harassment, alarm, or distress should not depend on where in the country you happen to live. Yet, without action to create safe access zones around every abortion clinic in the country, we are denying people this right.”
A spokesperson for Manchester city council said: “To date, the PSPO put in place in Fallowfield has been successful in its objectives and given the lack of clarity about wider reaching national legislation the decision was made to extend the PSPO.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “It is completely unacceptable that anyone 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 government will confirm timelines for the commencement of safe access zones in due course.”