Abortion clinics around the UK are repeating their call for laws that prevent anti-abortion protesters from holding demonstrations directly outside clinics following a landmark vote by Ealing council to tackle harassment outside a local clinic.
A clinic run by Marie Stopes, one of the UK's largest abortion providers, on Mattock Lane in Ealing, has long been the target of anti-abortion groups, notably the Good Counsel Network.
Evidence provided to the local council by Ealing campaign group Sister Supporter included video footage of protesters harassing women at the entrance of the clinic, calling them "murderers" and on one occasion telling a women she would be "haunted by her baby" if she went ahead with the procedure.
Members of Ealing council voted unanimously to explore the ability to introduce a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) that would prevent protests outside the Mattock Lane clinic, but staff at abortion clinics elsewhere, who deal with similar levels of harassment, say wider action is needed.
"This is a problem not just here but around the country, and I’d encourage all councils to look how they can best tackle similar disruption that we’ve had to deal with for two decades," Dan Crawford, Labour councillor for Acton Central, in the borough of Ealing, told BuzzFeed News.
At a Bournemouth clinic run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the UK's other largest abortion provider, staff recently reported protesters spraying what they claimed to be "holy water" at the entrance of the premises, something they found especially distressing following a recent rise in acid attacks.
Earlier this year BuzzFeed News reported disruption outside a Hastings abortion clinic after anti-abortion group Abort67 broadcast live footage near the entrance to Facebook, although local police said they did not believe the group was acting unlawfully.
A representative for campaign group Feminist Fightback, which works to try to prevent anti-abortion demonstrations directly outside clinics in east London and Buckhurst Hill in Essex, said they often saw protesters harassing women seeking the procedure. "They get in people’s faces and try to make them change their minds," the spokesperson said.
Staff at BPAS's Portsmouth clinic also said their patients were regularly harassed by protesters.
"One client said that they were leaning into her car as she was trying to drive in, and they’ve got flowers out there today which they appear to be giving out," clinic manager Chris Francis said.
A recent entry in the logbook at the Bournemouth clinic also reported protesters handing out flowers with notes attached that read "in loving memory of people kill [sic] each day at this clinic".
"We’re within a hospital which has quite a large mental health department, so we have other vulnerable women coming through the doors and they are being approached," Francis said. "The staff in the mental health department are quite angry at how the protesters are upsetting vulnerable women."
Francis welcomed Ealing council's plans to tackle harassment outside its local clinic, but said the issue needs to be addressed nationally: "It’s a shame that it’s only a local decision. It’s a step in the right direction, but we do need wider legislation for buffer zones."
The Home Office has repeatedly rejected calls for "buffer zones" – designated areas outside abortion clinics where demonstrations are not permitted, common in the US, Australia, and around the rest of Europe – citing the right to lawful, peaceful protest.
Many argue that activities by anti-abortion groups outside clinics go beyond that.
"It’s fine to protest, but don’t intimidate women," Crawford told us ahead of the Ealing vote this week. "We see [protesters] running to get to women and that’s just harassment," added Sue James, a member of Sister Supporter.
A spokesperson for Marie Stopes agreed that the anti-abortion demonstrations the organisation saw outside all of its clinics in the UK should be considered harassment, and urged other councils to follow Ealing's example.
"We hope that other local authorities will follow this example and act to increase protection for women in their area," the spokesperson said. “For too long these groups have used the word 'protest' to mask their real objectives, which are to harass women they don’t know, invade their space, and block their right to healthcare."
Anna Veglio-White, founder of Sister Supporter, encouraged others to replicate the group's work lobbying Ealing council if harassment around abortion clinics is an issue in their local area.
"We’ve been contacted by other groups who perhaps didn’t have as much organisation as we did who are now going to do the same thing," she said.
Veglio-White encouraged people to "start gathering evidence and getting residents to write to their councils," adding: "I think that process will be a lot quicker now with other councils because they can learn from Ealing."
Rachel Black, an abortion rights campaigner from Portsmouth, said she had already begun lobbying her local council after seeing anti-abortion protesters at the BPAS clinic there, and felt positive that Ealing council's decision would push them to take more action.
"It’s exciting because I think if it’s happened in Ealing it can happen nationwide," Black said. "I think there needs to be something in place to protect vulnerable women who are going through this."
A representative of the Save Rosslyn Road group, which has campaigned for buffer zones as a result of ongoing disruption at a BPAS clinic in Richmond, said they hoped the Ealing decision would help shift the gridlock the group had encountered with its own council.
"We’ve spoken and presented a petition to the local council who were very supportive and had the nice words, but there was no action," said the group's spokesperson, who preferred not to give their name, apparently for fear of repercussions from the local anti-abortion campaigners.
But they were confident that if Ealing could make a PSPO work at an abortion clinic, Richmond council might rethink. "If they’ve got a precedent for to work against I’m pretty confident that they’ll do that," they added.
Labour MP for Bermondsey Neil Coyle, who has a Marie Stopes clinic in his constituency, said he was keen to work with Southwark council to tackle ongoing issues of harassment there.
"I am asking Southwark council to consider a similar arrangement and hope it is taken forward soon," Coyle said. "It is very sad to have to provide such plans for vital healthcare but we cannot allow harassment and intimidation to continue."
Fellow Labour MP Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, also welcomed Ealing council's decision to explore PSPOs, but believes national action was needed to outlaw widespread harassment.
"No matter how strongly protesters feel about abortion themselves, they don’t have the right to harass, intimidate or distress women who need to make their own very personal decision with their doctors," Cooper said.
“The government should consult on a proper approach to buffer zones to prevent intimidating protests right outside clinics delivering abortion services to ensure patients and staff are given the space and privacy they need.”
Laura Silver is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Laura Silver at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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