Picture credit: Be Here For Me campaign
Artillery Row

Don’t impose buffer zones

Give women real choice

In 2011, I was single, abandoned, facing unemployment, and terrified when I discovered I was pregnant. I booked an appointment at a Marie Stopes abortion clinic. I didn’t seem to have any other option. My baby wouldn’t know her father, and I had little in the way of financial or emotional support. I wanted to keep her, but I didn’t know how, and so my hope rapidly began to fade.

It is the beginning of a story many women will be familiar with — and no doubt will feel they can anticipate the ending. The day that I turned up to my abortion appointment, a volunteer outside the clinic gently gave me a leaflet. Somewhere beneath the palpable anxiety and pressure, it provided me with what I was longing for.

Some would say I had already “chosen” abortion but the truth is I didn’t choose it. The reality is that so many women like me have had to make an abortion appointment not through choice, but by pressure. To freely choose something, we need to be aware of the other options and have the ability to pursue them. This is precisely what many women feel they do not have. I discovered later that these volunteers are highlighting to women like myself the wide-ranging support that is available. In my case, it gave me the hope I was searching for. 

That is why I am alarmed at the fact that there is another attempt to change the law to introduce so-called buffer zones around abortion clinics nationwide, expected to be debated on October 17th 2022 as part of the Public Order Bill. It would criminalise volunteers outside abortion clinics, such as the one who approached me. No one would deny that visiting an abortion clinic can be distressing, but I didn’t feel threatened or harassed by being handed a leaflet. And yet, these are the grounds on which the buffer zones amendment is being pushed. 

Let me be clear — having been in the shoes of a woman facing abortion, I have zero tolerance for harassment. It is wrong and would be supremely hypocritical of a group claiming to offer help. But this problem is far from widespread. Don’t just take it from me. After conducting a thorough review, the Government said in 2018 that instances of harassment are rare, and that police already have the powers they need to deal with these situations should they ever arise. They concluded that “introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response.” This is hardly surprising given that the activities these volunteers typically perform are quiet prayer, support, dissemination of information, and expression of conscience. 

It is worrying that we would consider denying vulnerable women access to this potentially life-changing information. When facing one of the most challenging decisions of their lives, which could have huge, lasting ramifications on their own mental and physical health, that is undoubtedly when they need it most. 

If we want to support and empower women — to promote choice one might put it — this isn’t the way to do it. Removing the option to receive help to keep a child in case we feel “offended” is deeply patronising, and assumes that we can’t make a decision for ourselves or that we might choose the “wrong” option. To truly empower women, the first course of action should always be doing everything in our power to give women the confidence and support they need to raise the child, if that is what they want to do.

I couldn’t be prouder of the life my daughter and I have charted out together

Had I not received that support from volunteers, my beautiful daughter would not be here today. I weighed up the two options I had before me, and I chose motherhood. I chose to accept help to get housing, help to find a job and help to obtain a pram, a cot and nappies. It wasn’t easy, but with the support of the group who had given me that leaflet, I couldn’t be prouder of the life my daughter and I have charted out together. 

My case is not a one-off.  There are hundreds of women just like me who have benefited in the UK from this support and yet it is all too often ignored as we single-mindedly race to encourage unquestioning access to abortions for vulnerable women. Other women who would rather keep their babies than have abortions will be denied valuable assistance if the planned buffer zone laws turn anyone who volunteers advice into criminals.

If MPs want to stand with women, they have to stand by real help for women and reject this amendment.

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