A bill to ban protests outside abortion clinics to protect women from being intimidated by campaigners has passed its first Commons hurdle.
Cross-party MPs threw their weight behind efforts by Labour MP Rupa Huq to bring in nationwide buffer zones outside family planning facilities, where protesters have harassed women seeking terminations by calling them murderers or brandishing images of foetuses.
Ms Huq, the MP for Ealing Central and Acton, said women should be able to access medical procedures without being intimidated.
She said: “The demands in this bill are not new and although its title includes the word ‘abortion’, the termination of pregnancy is not at issue here. Not number of weeks or anything of that nature. This is about women being able to present themselves for legal healthcare free from intimidation.”
Ms Huq added: “This is not about the rights and wrongs of abortion. While emotions run high and there are sincerely held opinions on both sides of that argument, we have to accept that it’s been legal for 50 years in this country.
“This is about the rights of vulnerable women seeking access to healthcare in safety, anonymity and dignity.”
Ealing Council was the first local authority to introduce a protest-free zone outside a clinic in 2018 following long-running demonstrations outside the facility.
Councils can apply for public spaces protection orders (PSPOs) to ban gatherings – such as in Ealing – but these orders need to be regularly renewed.
But Sajid Javid, then home secretary, rejected calls to introduce exclusive zones nationwide, saying it would not be a “proportionate response” to the levels of harassment.
Tory MP Fiona Bruce opposed the bill, which she described as a “drastic overreaction” to the problem and claimed the move would undermine freedoms of speech and conscience.
Ms Bruce, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, said the majority of people gathering outside family planning facilities were acting peacefully.
She told MPs: “Let me clear, I do not condone aggressive protest activities outside abortion clinics.
“But these are in the minority and imposing national legislation where it is not required to tackle these would be a drastic overreaction because of the potential damage this bill could do to the more widely held freedom of speech in this country.”
MPs voted to allow Ms Huq to introduce the bill by 213 votes to 47 on Wednesday, ahead of a second reading on 11 September.
Backbench legislation of this kind rarely becomes law without government backing.