A west London council has voted to pursue a public space protection order (PSPO) to prevent protesters from harassing women accessing an abortion clinic in Ealing, in what is seen as a significant victory for pro-choice campaigners amid an increasingly hostile climate outside clinics around the UK.
“On behalf of the Marie Stopes community, I am elated by the support from Ealing council. This is huge for us and I look forward to the day when women can access legal healthcare at all our clinics without fear of harassment,” said John Hansen-Brevetti, clinical services director at the Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing.
He was among some 150 people at Ealing Town Hall on Tuesday evening to hear the Labour-controlled council debate the motion to pursue all options, including a public space protection order (PSPO), to put an end to protests by the anti-abortion Good Counsel Network. Of the 69 councillors who were present, all voted for the motion bar two who abstained.
Councillor Binda Rai, who proposed the motion, said: “This motion is not about the pros and cons of abortion but about a woman’s right to access legal healthcare … This protest has been going on for around 20 years but we’ve seen a rise in the number of protesters and a growth in the physical and emotional abuse women are subjected to.”
A PSPO, which bans pre-defined activities within a geographical area, is usually used to stop anti-social behaviour such as public drinking or taking drugs. A public consultation will now be held on the PSPO.
The decision by Ealing council marks the first time a protection order is being sought in connection with an abortion clinic and follows months of standoffs between anti-abortion protesters from the Good Counsel Network and local pro-choice group Sister Supporter, whose petition persuaded the council to debate the issue.
The evidence included a log kept by the clinic in which staff record women arriving in a distressed state after being told they are ‘murderers’
At the debate Sister Supporter presented evidence of the tone and scale of the anti-abortion vigils in Ealing, which take place six days a week. The evidence included photographs of the small plastic foetuses that are foisted on women, leaflets with misleading information about the health risks of abortion and a log kept by the clinic in which staff record women arriving in a distressed state after being told they are “murderers” who will be “haunted by their dead babies”.
Anyone passing the clinic on leafy Mattock Lane routinely sees graphic images of foetuses laid out on the pavement by the entrance, which is blocked by one protester while a group stand nearby chanting. On Saturdays Sister Supporter, clad in pink hi-vis vests, form a picket line to protect patients from protesters.
Anna Veglio-White, founder of Sister Supporter, referred to the impact of the protests on residents. “Many residents have changed the route they walk to school so their children aren’t confronted with graphic images or witness the harassment. These vigils have tarred how they feel about the neighbourhood.”
The Good Counsel Network, which also holds vigils outside Marie Stopes clinics in Twickenham and central London, says its “counsellors” merely offer guidance to women and have helped hundreds access housing advice, for example. Outside Ealing Town Hall one member of the network who did not want to give her name said she feared that other councils would follow Ealing’s lead.
But that is exactly what Sister Supporter and other pro-choice campaigners are hoping, amid an increase in the number and ferocity of protests in recent years, with groups like Abort67 and 40 Days for Life using more confrontational tactics.
Clare Murphy, spokesperson for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), said the increase in protests reflected the “desperation” of the anti-abortion campaign. ‘These protests are all they really have left. They know that there is no hope of reversing the law so they are just chipping away at it and trying to make the situation as uncomfortable as possible for women accessing legal healthcare. We would not accept that people accessing any other form of healthcare are harassed in this way so why do we accept this for women seeking abortions?”
For years, UK councils have been noting the protests outside clinics without knowing how to tackle it, she said. Some have called for the introduction of buffer zones around clinics, which exist in parts of Canada, the US and Australia.
BPAS has been working with local Labour MP Rupa Huq to amend forthcoming domestic violence legislation so that a cordon sanitaire can be established around anti-abortion clinics so that women can use them free from harassment.
Rupa Huq, who was at the debate, said a PSPO in Ealing was an important breakthrough: “The people who frustrate the rights of women accessing NHS-provided services and obstruct the pavement in the name of religion using moral blackmail are bullies of the worst kind that need stopping in their tracks.”
The mood outside Ealing Town Hall on Tuesday evening was jubilant as Sister Supporter and pro-choice campaigners celebrated the vote. But the route to establishing a buffer zone around the Marie Stopes clinic is unchartered territory and Ealing anticipate hurdles and possible legal battles ahead.
Council leader Julian Bell said: “Other councils will be watching Ealing and we have to get this right. But we are now agreed that something needs to be done.”