A bubble zone is a designated area around a clinic which offers reproductive health services. Within the bubble zone, only staff and clients of the clinic may be present, along with supporters accompanying clients to appointments. The idea behind a bubble zone is the restriction of clinic protesters, who may blockade the entrance or otherwise impede access to the clinic.
Bubble zone laws are put in place to protect women's access to reproductive health services, particularly abortion, and also for safety reasons. Clinic protesters can sometimes become quite heated, and a mandatory buffer zone can reduce tensions between clients, picketers, and staff, reducing the risk of conflict. Furthermore, a group of protesters could potentially impede access by law enforcement, emergency services, and other government agencies which might need rapid access to the clinic.
Laws about bubble zones vary widely from nation to nation, and even within individual countries. As a general rule, these laws can be fixed, meaning that they apply to a specific location such as a doctor's office, clinic, or hospital, or floating, moving with clinic patients, staff, and vehicles. You may hear a bubble zone referred to as an access zone, referencing the idea that it is designed to protect access to abortion.
Activists who are opposed to abortion are often opposed to bubble zones, because they feel that such zones obstruct their ability to reach out to clinic patients. In nations where free speech is valued, bubble zone laws often become controversial, with protesters arguing that they have a protected right to free speech which is infringed by the zone. When such laws are challenged in court on this basis, the safety argument is usually a key part of the argument used to defend the zone, with the defense suggesting that the right to free speech does not extend to physical obstruction of clients and staff, or to physical threats.
For staff and clients, a bubble zone can be greatly appreciated. Seeking abortion and other reproductive health services can be very stressful, especially with pressure from protesters around a clinic or doctor's office, and a clot of protesters may scare a patient away, or make members of the staff feel physically threatened. Physical attacks on clinic staff have been reported in many nations, reflecting the obvious need for a protective zone which allows people to get to work safely. Most clinics also have additional measures in place to protect the safety and privacy of their clients.