Religious exemptions to abortion buffer zones law could ‘overturn will of Parliament’

18 January, 2024

The new draft guidance was issued by Home Secretary James Cleverly (CC BY 2.0 UK Government Flickr)

The UK Government has proposed draft guidance for Abortion Safe Access Zones that would effectively overturn the will of Parliament through expansive religious loopholes which would render the legislation incapable of protecting women from abuse and harassment.

In 2022 and 2023, in a resolute response to escalating harassment of women at the hands of evangelical protesters outside abortion clinics, the UK Parliament voted overwhelmingly to establish Safe Access Zones around abortion clinics in England and Wales. These zones were expressly intended to protect women from a barrage of bullying and psychological abuse as they sought access to clinics, ensuring their right to medical care in a safe and dignified environment.

The UK Home Office under Home Secretary Suella Braverman was slow to issue statutory guidance to enact the legislation. Now, under new draft guidance issued by current Home Secretary James Cleverly, the legislation faces a significant risk of being rendered toothless and inadequate, leaving women vulnerable to continued abuse and harassment.

The watered-down guidance has been met with stern criticism from Humanists UK and other advocates for reproductive rights. In its response to the Home Office’s consultation, Humanists UK has called for the guidance to be significantly amended to make sure law is implemented as voted for by Parliament. It has also called on the opposition parties to commit explicitly to new guidance if the Conservatives won’t.

Humanists UK was one of the many pro-choice organisations which campaigned on Safe Access Zones (or ‘buffer zones’) outside abortion clinics. It was a founding member of the Back Off Coalition and briefed MPs and peers throughout the passage of the 2023 Public Order Act. 

Massive religious loopholes

Religious loopholes to the draft guidance currently set out that:

  • ‘Silent prayer’ will be specifically exempted from ban, allowing large crowds to gather in any number, holding signs
  • Religious protesters engaging in ‘silent prayer’ will be permitted to approach and talk to patients – giving them a blank cheque to harass women as well as staff working at the clinics

As part of the passage of the 2023 Public Order Act, unpopular amendments which would have enabled the above were overwhelmingly rejected by MPs. However, the Government has clearly chosen to write them into law via secondary legislation regardless.

An intense religious lobbying operation led by evangelical groups urged MPs to vote against the legislation, which failed. However, continued backroom lobbying has clearly managed to persuade influential people in Government to overturn the will of Parliament.

Humanists UK Public Affairs Manager Karen Wright said

‘Safe Access Zones are already a reality in Northern Ireland. It is hard to understand why any government would go to such lengths to keep England and Wales lagging behind, even when that means thwarting the will of Parliament by executive fiat. This is simply not what you expect to see happening in a mature parliamentary democracy.

‘The guidelines have clearly been hamstrung in response to intensive religious lobbying from the very sorts of people that Parliament did not want to see harassing women. If the Government cares for the health and safety of women, it will revise the guidance and get Safe Access Zones up and running before the election. We would also call on other parties to make manifesto commitments to protecting women’s sexual and reproductive rights.’

Wider concerns for UK abortion rights

This is not the first time in recent years that the UK Government has cast serious doubts over its support for women’s sexual and reproductive health rights. In 2022, Humanists UK broke the story that the UK had unilaterally revised a multinational statement on women’s rights signed by dozens of countries, in order to expressly remove mention of abortion rights in the days following Roe v Wade being overturned in the United States.

In 2024, an unusually large number of Private Member’s Bills have been put forward by Conservative peers to try and restrict women’s rights to abortion in the UK. Humanists UK warned of a ‘triple attack on abortion rights’ and urged members to sign its petition backing Safe Access Zones.


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Kathy Riddick at or phone 020 3675 0959.

Read more about our work on abortion.

Read Humanists UK’s response to the Home Office’s Safe Access Zones consultation.

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