A west London council has become the first local authority in the country to commit to tackling harassment outside abortion clinics, with plans to introduce "buffer zones".
Ealing council confirmed on Tuesday that it would take steps to introduce a public space protection order (PSPO) preventing protesters from congregating within a certain distance of the Marie Stopes abortion clinic on Mattock Lane in Ealing.
An eight-week consultation will follow and, if there is enough public support, the order will be put into place.
Ealing's decision has been welcomed by campaigners who say it "is one of the most important things to happen in abortion rights history" and paves the way for other local authorities to follow suit, including Birmingham city council and Portsmouth council, which have begun to explore similar options.
Home secretary Amber Rudd on Wednesday also announced a national consultation on whether legislation should be introduced to tackle harassment outside abortion clinics.
The Ealing clinic has long been the target of anti-abortion groups including the Good Counsel Network, the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, and 40 Days for Life, who hold so-called prayer vigils directly outside the premises.
They have been accused of calling patients and staff "murderers" and obstructing entry to the clinic, claims each group has denied.
Women have described feeling intimidated and scared to seek abortion services there as a result.
Speaking at the council meeting, councillor Ranjit Dheer said claims from the anti-abortion protesters that their vigils enabled them to offer support to vulnerable women had "no credibility".
"Surely they would understand the fragile, emotional nature of women who come to these clinics," he said. "Is it necessary to pile this humiliation on them?"
Testimony collected by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) alongside the council's consultation revealed that on a number of occasions women visiting Marie Stopes in Ealing had felt harassed by members of anti-abortion groups outside the clinic.
"On my first visit, early in the morning, there was a woman clutching a cross standing right by the entrance and shouting things at me," one patient, who visited the clinic last year, said.
"I couldn't understand what she was saying and carried on walking," she continued. "On my second visit, on leaving I was chased by a man with leaflets and shouting."
She added that it made her feel tearful and threatened. "It made a terrible situation even worse. I feel anger towards those protesters now when I reflect.
"They should not be allowed to harass women like this."
A postal worker recalled feeling harassed by anti-abortion protesters even though she was at the clinic on business rather than as a patient.
"I had to walk through a gathering of protesters reciting the Lord's prayer," she said. "It was haunting and deeply judgmental and intimidating even though I was only there to meet with the office manager to discuss a business matter."
When, more recently, she returned to the clinic as a patient, she said knowing she would likely be confronted with protesters made her decision to have an abortion more difficult.
"Not that the decision I was making was wrong, but the thought of having to walk through them made me far more anxious about my appointment to the point I considered less humane alternatives instead of facing that," she said. "They weren't there the day I went in for my procedure. But how dare they affect the emotions of women already in turmoil? How dare they?"
A staff member at the clinic told BPAS they had begun recording patient reports of harassment by anti-abortion protesters. Incidents included patients being told they would be "haunted" and being asked "Are you sure you want to kill your baby?"
There were also reports of protesters blocking the entrance to the clinic, shouting at one patient and her mother, forcing leaflets or plastic foetuses into patients' hands, and taking pictures of patients arriving at the facility.
In meetings with Ealing council during a consultation on harassment, representatives for anti-abortion groups responsible for the vigils denied engaging in intimidating behaviour.
"[Volunteers] don’t approach, they just pray," a spokesperson for the Good Counsel Network told Ealing council's Safer Neighbourhoods team. "Occasionally an individual may get more upset. If [a volunteer is in breach of the GCN's code of practice] then they are asked not to attend."
The spokesperson defended approaching women to offer support, which they said included financial advice and details of how to access baby supplies. "We want every woman to have an opportunity to receive a leaflet," they said. "This provides written information, but it is always a woman’s choice as to whether they accept."
Ealing council members involved in the consultation said they had hoped to reach a compromise with anti-abortion groups in which they would be free to express their views some distance away from the clinic.
But the Good Counsel Network's spokesperson argued that directly engaging with women entering the clinic was integral to their approach, leading the council to conclude it had no choice but to consider enforcing a PSPO.
GCN's founder, Clare McCullough, told BuzzFeed News the group plans to "fight this decision peacefully".
McCullough denied her volunteers had called women "murderers" or chased them down the road. "We feel like hundreds of women who’ve received our help, they will lose an option," she said. "I feel like offering a woman a leaflet – just that – at the gate is proportionate, and if she doesn’t want it, she’s not under any pressure to take it."
Abortion rights group Sister Supporter, backed by more than 3,000 local residents, has been lobbying the council to take steps to prevent the vigils from taking place directly outside the Ealing clinic.
Anna Veglio-White, cofounder of Sister Supporter, told BuzzFeed News she was "cautiously optimistic" that Ealing council's decision could have a ripple effect across a number of local authorities.
"I think you could arguably say this is one of the most important things to happen in abortion rights history since the Abortion Act came in itself," Veglio-White said.
"I know there’s a lot of other councils watching Ealing and waiting," she continued. "Once a few councils have the confidence to do it, it’s a national problem rather than a local problem. That is increasing pressure on the government."
On Wednesday the Home Office launched a consultation into the possibility of introducing legislation to prevent harassment outside abortion clinics, which has become a national issue, following a hearing by the home affairs select committee in December.
"An abortion is an incredibly personal decision for anyone to take, and so it is completely unacceptable for women to face harassment or intimidation for exercising their legal right to healthcare advice and treatment," the home secretary said.
A spokesperson for BPAS agreed that the evidence collected by the council suggested that a PSPO would be appropriate. "These groups should realise they are on the wrong side of this debate," they added.
Rupa Huq, the Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton, who has also been instrumental in bringing the issue of harassment outside abortion clinics before the home affairs select committee, welcomed the council's decision.
"Ealing is leading where the country should follow – laying the groundwork for a national solution to the issue of street harassment," she said. "I look forward to bringing pressure upon the government to deliver for women across the country."