More than 150 MPs have signed a letter to newly appointed home secretary Sajid Javid, asking him to commit to plans to eradicate harassment outside abortion clinics that were backed by his predecessor, Amber Rudd.
The letter was written by Labour MP Rupa Huq, who has long sought to tackle anti-abortion protests in her constituency of Ealing. It is signed by MPs across the political spectrum including the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MPs including Harriet Harman and Yvette Cooper, the Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable, and Conservative MPs including Zac Goldsmith and chair of the health select committee Sarah Wollaston.
Rudd resigned from the position last month as a result of the Windrush scandal, but last November the Home Office launched a review into protests outside abortion clinics, with her backing.
Over 100 MPs from across the political spectrum called for the review as a result of claims that "prayer vigils" by anti-abortion groups outside clinics across the country amounted to harassment of women seeking termination of pregnancy services.
In the letter due to be sent to Javid on Friday morning, Huq says that the issue persists, and asks him to commit to continue the work that Rudd began to explore the introduction of national legislation to prevent such protests.
"In many of our colleagues’ constituencies [protesters] stand with oversized signs with distressing and graphic images of aborted foetuses, they film women entering and leaving clinics, and they distribute false medical information," Huq wrote.
She said that the protesters compromised the confidentiality of women accessing abortion services.
"This is not a protest in the usual sense of the word," Huq continued. "These people are not seeking to change the law – they are not campaigning to change the minds of our colleagues, or encourage parliament to review the legislation.
"Instead, they are targeting individual women who have come to a difficult decision and who are seeking to access lawful healthcare."
Rudd was supportive of the initial review into the measures to prevent the protests, saying women should have the right to access abortion services like they would any other medical service.
"It is completely unacceptable that anyone should feel harassed or intimidated simply for exercising their legal right to healthcare advice and treatment," she said in a statement accompanying its launch.
"Sadly, this is still the reality for women and medical staff in many parts of our country," Huq continued in Friday's letter.
"I therefore hope that you can confirm you will continue this review and the excellent work started by Amber, and that we will be able to move forward with finding a solution to this persistent issue."
The review closed earlier this year, and its outcome is yet to be published.
"It’s important that, with a busy in-tray, he does not let this issue slip out of sight and out of mind so women can be afforded anonymity, free from harassment, when going to these clinics as they would be afforded for any other medical procedure," Huq told BuzzFeed News.
While Javid has not been outspoken on his views about abortion, he supported anti-abortion Conservative MP Nadine Dorries' controversial 2011 bill to require independent advice to be offered women requesting an abortion. The bill did not pass and counselling is currently offered to women seeking abortion by providers of the service, which are regulated by the Care Quality Commission.
In April, the local council in Huq's constituency of Ealing passed a groundbreaking motion to introduce a Public Space Protection Order that prevented anti-abortion protesters from congregating directly outside a local abortion clinic.
The Marie Stopes clinic on Mattock Lane in Ealing had been a particular target for anti-abortion protesters. They have been accused of calling patients and staff "murderers" and obstructing entry to the clinic, claims they have denied.
Women have described feeling intimidated and scared to seek abortion services there as a result.
The issue is not unique to Ealing, with several other councils, including Birmingham, Portsmouth, Southwark, and Rudd's constituency of Hastings considering similar measures.
MPs supporting abortion rights hope to introduce national legislation for buffer zones outside abortion clinics as an amendment to the forthcoming domestic violence bill.
In the Isle of Man, where legislation to legalise abortion is currently passing through the House of Keys, members recently agreed to include measures to prevent harassment outside clinics, which MHK Dr Alex Allinson, who tabled the bill. earlier this year told BuzzFeed News was directly inspired by evidence collected on the issue by Ealing council.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, one of the UK's largest abortion providers, also supports wider measures to introduce buffer zones nationally, and alongside Huq's letter have launched a petition asking the wider public to put pressure on Javid to continue work in this area.
"42 healthcare centres across the UK have reported anti-abortion protesters standing directly outside," the petition reads. "Their tactics can include calling women ‘murderers', filming women entering and leaving, displaying large, graphic posters, and giving out false medical information."
The Home Office's review also asked for public submissions. A source at the department told BuzzFeed News that they had received thousands of responses.
Here is the text of the full letter:
Congratulations on your appointment as Home Secretary. I wish you all the very best for your new role and look forward to working closely with you.
I wanted to take the opportunity early in your tenure to draw your attention to the ongoing review being run by the Home Office of protests outside abortion clinics, which was established after a cross-party letter from 113 MPs was sent to your predecessor.
As you may be aware, there has been a longstanding protest outside a clinic in Ealing, with groups of people stood outside the clinic at Mattock Lane for the past 23 years – following women, calling them ‘murderers’, and telling them that if they ‘change their lifestyles then they won’t end up back here’.
The Council there has sought to make use of their existing anti-social behaviour powers, but Ealing is not alone. Across the country, there have been 42 clinics affected by these protests in the last year alone.
In many of our colleagues’ constituencies they stand with oversized signs with distressing and graphic images of aborted foetuses, they film women entering and leaving clinics, and they distribute false medical information. Some protests involve gatherings which the groups involved refer to as ‘vigils’ – but research from Aston University has made it clear that no matter what these groups of people are doing, the very fact that they are standing outside the clinic and putting women’s confidentiality at risk is found to be intimidating.
This is not a protest in the usual sense of the word. These people are not seeking to change the law – they are not campaigning to change the minds of our colleagues, or encourage parliament to review the legislation. Instead, they are targeting individual women who have come to a difficult decision and who are seeking to access lawful healthcare.
When Rt Hon Amber Rudd MP announced the Home Office review last year, she said that it was “completely unacceptable that anyone should feel harassed or intimidated simply for exercising their legal right to healthcare advice and treatment.” Sadly, this is still the reality for women and medical staff in many parts of our country. I therefore hope that you can confirm you will continue this review and the excellent work started by Amber, and that we will be able to move forward with finding a solution to this persistent issue.
I attach a copy of the letter sent to the Home Secretary last November for your information.