LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A London council voted on Tuesday to seek an order creating a buffer zone around an abortion clinic to prevent pro-life campaigners from harassing and intimidating patient in the first case of its kind in Britain.
Ealing council voted to pursue a public spaces protection order (PSPO), which bars pre-defined activities in a geographical area and is usually used to stop anti-social behavior like drug taking.
Of the 69 councilors who were present at the council meeting, all voted in favor of the motion bar two who abstained. The motion will now be put to a public consultation.
Binda Rai, a councilor from the Labour controlled local council who proposed the motion, said it was time to tackle this ahead of a debate in which councilor after councilor highlighted the negative impact of anti-abortion protests on the community.
“This issue is a blight on our borough and has been around for far too long,” said Rai.
Developments in Ealing will be watched closely by other councils amid an increase in the volume and ferocity of anti-abortion protests around Britain, campaigners said.
“The increase (in protests) smacks of desperation as many more people in the UK now support the right to abortion,” said Clare Murphy, of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
The vote in Ealing follows a petition from pro-choice group Sister Supporter, which regularly clashes with protesters outside a Marie Stopes clinic in the leafy west London suburb.
Clad in hi-vis pink jackets, Sister Supporter forms a picket line to stop campaigners from the anti-abortion Good Counsel Network approaching women on their way into the clinic and brandishing graphic images of aborted fetuses.
Sister Supporter say that video of women entering the clinic are streamed on Facebook Live. Residents have also complained about the disruption.
John Hansen-Brevetti, director of clinical services at the Ealing center, said the harassment of patients had intensified in recent years.
“Our priority is the safety of our patients and something had to be done as the harassment had crossed a line into endangering women who use the clinic,” he said.
“This vote has significance for the whole of the UK and on behalf of the Marie Stopes community I look forward to a time when all our clinics can provide legal healthcare free of this harassment.”
Abortion has been legal in Britain since 1968 for pregnancies up to 24 weeks. The British law does not apply to Northern Ireland, which retains many restrictions on abortion.
Rupa Huq, the local member of parliament for the national opposition Labour party, is pushing for national laws to establish buffer zones around abortion clinics to prevent protests.
“This motion ... is a groundbreaking, pioneering move to bring family planning clinics and the protests outside under the remit of a PSPO to stamp this nuisance out and keep the pavement as a safe space,” Huq told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Good Counsel Network, a Christian organization, hold vigils at the Ealing clinic six days a week to offer advice to women patients who may be seeking an abortion, said Claire McCullough, the group’s London spokeswoman.
The network holds vigils at two other Marie Stopes clinics.
The Canadian province of Ontario is preparing legislation that will ban protests outside abortion clinics, the UK’s Independent online newspaper reported last week.
The law would create “safe access zones” around clinics, pharmacies that sell termination pills and the homes of people who work there.
Reporting by Jo Griffin, Editing by Ros Russell and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org