MPs have backed proposals to enforce buffer zones around abortion clinics in England and Wales.
Under the proposed law, harassing, obstructing or interfering with any woman attending an abortion clinic will become a criminal offence. Protesters found guilty of breaching the buffer zones – which would extend 150 metres from the clinics – could face up to six months in jail.
Parliament voted by 297 to 110 in favour of the amendment, pushed by a cross-party group of MPs, to the government’s public order bill.
Currently, police and local authorities can apply to set up zones in response to complaints over protests, but these can face legal challenges from anti-abortion campaigners.
MPs were given a free vote on the matter. The Labour MP Stella Creasy, who proposed the new rules, said buffer zones protect “women accessing a very specific type of healthcare”.
Creasy said: “It does not stop free speech on abortion. It does not stop people protesting. It simply says you shouldn’t have the right to do this in the face of somebody – and very often these people are right up in front of people.”
The bill still has several stages to clear before becoming law, including scrutiny in the House of Lords.
The former Home Office minister Victoria Atkins earlier signalled her support for the measure. “These are fundamental healthcare services that we provide rightly, lawfully, in the 21st century,” she told MPs. “So we must surely enable women to get the services as they need them, when they need them, so that they get the right help and advice that they need.”
The Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh disagreed with the proposals. “We’re talking about people who are just trying to raise awareness about support available … to women facing difficult pregnancies with nowhere else to turn to,” he said. “We’re going to criminalise these grandmothers but so much of the Just Stop Oil people walk free.”
Ealing council in west London established the country’s first buffer zone, around a Marie Stopes clinic, in 2018. Other councils have subsequently proposed similar schemes.
Similar legislation has been proposed in Scotland. In June, the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said the Scottish government would back a member’s bill that would see 150-metre no-go areas placed outside health facilities so women could access services without fear, harassment or intimidation.