Council becomes first in UK to ban protests outside abortion clinic

Ealing to introduce 'safe zone' to shield women from harassment and intimidation 

Chris Baynes
Tuesday 10 April 2018 21:27 BST
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Ealing council has become the first in the UK to ban protests outside a local abortion clinic

A London council has become the first in the UK to ban anti-abortion campaigners from protesting outside a clinic.

Ealing councillors voted unanimously to approve a “safe zone” to shield women from demonstrators at a centre run by the charity Marie Stopes.

It follows complaints that women using the west London centre were being harassed and intimidated by anti-abortion protesters, some brandishing large images of foetuses and shouting “murderers”.

Ealing’s three-year Public Spaces Protection Order bans groups congregating within 100 metres of the clinic, which carries out about 7,000 abortions a year. Demonstrators are also prohibited from shouting, displaying posters and playing recordings about abortion in the area. Anyone who breaches the order can be arrested and charged.

Pro-choice campaigners hailed the council’s “landmark decision”, which they hope will pave the way for authorities elsewhere in the country to implement similar measures.

Richard Bentley, managing director at Marie Stopes UK, said: “We are incredibly grateful to Ealing Council for recognising the emotional distress that these groups create, and for taking proportionate action to protect the privacy and dignity of women accessing our clinic in the borough.

“This was never about protest. It was about small groups of strangers choosing to gather by our entrance gates where they could harass and intimidate women and try to prevent them from accessing healthcare to which they are legally entitled.

“Ealing Council has sent a clear message that this kind of behaviour should not be tolerated, and that these groups have no justification for trying to involve themselves in one of the most personal decisions a woman can make.”

Anti-abortion demonstrators outside the Marie Stopes clinic on Mattock Lane, Ealing
Anti-abortion demonstrators outside the Marie Stopes clinic on Mattock Lane, Ealing (PA)

Pro-choice and anti-abortion campaigners each spoke before the vote an Ealing Council cabinet meeting.

Councillors considered months of evidence on events outside the clinic, as well as statements from women who used the centre and campaigners on both sides.

John Hansen-Brevetti, clinical operations manager at the clinic on Mattock Lane, said protestors had told some pregnant women the ghost of their foetus would haunt them. On other occasions, they cried ”mummy mummy don’t kill me” and threw holy water at women as they entered the clinic.

Mr Hansen-Brevett said “pavement counsellors” were outside the clinic every day, approaching every client on the way in and out.

He said: “That’s how we know that this isn’t just about providing information, however inaccurate that information might be, this is about making people feel shame and fear for the decision they’ve made.

“People come into our consultation rooms crying and shaking, sometimes we have to wait to take their blood pressure because they’re so anxious having been through that.”

Anna Veglio-White, a co-founder of local pro-choice campaign group Sister Supporter, said she had seen anti-abortion protestors misdirect women away from the clinic so they miss their appointments and follow them to their cars to jam leaflets through the windows.

Sister Supporter’s counter protesters has been coming to the clinic every Saturday since Easter last year to try to create a “human shield” to protect the women.

Alithea Williams from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) said there was “no motive or reason” for anti-abortion protesters to be intimidating, and argued implementing a safe zone would be “authoritarian”.

She said she had not protested outside the clinic herself but “it would be a very dark day” if councillors approved the safe zone.

Speaking after the decision, Elizabeth Howard, spokeswoman for anti-abortion campaign group Be Here for Me, said: “It’s what we expected, after really what can only be described as a sham consultation by the council. It was skewed right from the beginning.

“Residents were asked whether we agreed with pro-lifers not being allowed to say ‘murderer’. Now no pro-lifer I know would ever call someone a murderer because we’re here to support women who maybe feel they don’t have any other choice than abortion and don’t want an abortion.”

But council leader Julian Bell said he felt the cabinet had done “absolutely” the right thing.

He added: “I believe that this is something that’s long been needed, so it feels good that we are actually breaking the ground with this and leading the way. So I’m proud that we are doing it.

“I’m, personally, a practising Christian myself and so I think it’s important to recognise that this is about protecting women from harassment and intimidation.

“We’ve always been clear that that’s what this was about. It wasn’t a debate for or against abortion.”

The British Pregnancy Advice Service called on the government to now introduce legislation “as a matter of urgency” to create safe zones around all abortion clinics.

Spokeswoman Katherine O’Brien said: “The protests in Ealing are sadly not isolated incidents. On a daily basis, women across the country are being confronted by increasingly aggressive groups of protesters as they try to access safe, legal healthcare.

“This isn’t about the rights and wrongs of abortion – this is about the harassment of women. The government has a duty to provide all women with the same level of protection that will now be offered in Ealing.”

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