Anti-social behaviour ruling could halt anti-abortion protests outside clinics

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Catholic anti-abortionists praying and leaflettng at the Marie Stopes Clinic in Ealing, London.
Catholic anti-abortionists praying and leafleting at the Marie Stopes Clinic in Ealing, London. Photograph: Alamy

Anti-abortion protests outside clinics across the UK could be halted using anti-social behaviour legislation, a Labour MP has said, after her council took a significant decision to stop a group from approaching women at a west London clinic.

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Rupa Huq MP said a “national and permanent response” was needed after Ealing councillors voted overwhelmingly this week in favour of a motion to stop the anti-abortion groups from protesting outside a Marie Stopes clinic in the borough.

Huq, whose constituency office has been targeted by anti-abortion protesters using graphic billboards, said she hoped to use an amendment to the forthcoming domestic violence bill in parliament to ensure clinics had a buffer zone to allow clients to leave and arrive in privacy.

The Catholic anti-abortion Good Counsel Network had been holding daily vigils outside the west London clinic, including handing women teddy bears and calling them “mum”, but denied they were harassing women going inside.

Huq, the MP for Ealing Central and Acton, said she had seen the group telling women leaving the clinic that they were going to hell and broadcasting images of the clinic’s clients on Facebook Live, which the group denies.

After councillors backed measures to stop the vigils, Ealing council said it was now considering a range of measures, followed by a consultation period, including potentially using a time-limited Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), normally used to prevent anti-social behaviour such as street drinking.

Huq said although she welcomed the council’s response, parliament needed to find a permanent solution. “If a PSPO is used, it might only last a number of months and is likely to be subject to a legal challenge,” she said.

The MP said she had already spoken to a number of Conservative and SNP MPs who had similar issues in their constituencies. “It is a question of public safety too, women should be able to visit these clinics in privacy as if they were visiting any other medical practice,” she said.

Good Counsel Network’s Clare McCullough told BBC Radio 5 Live her group did not harass the women going into the clinic. “I think it’s very clear women entering abortion centres are distressed, full stop. We are not there to add to their distress. The leaflet that we give them lists support available, babysitting, financial help, housing,” she said.

“We offer a leaflet and then we back off. That is the least offensive we can be. We do not have cameras and there is no evidence of us filming outside. We have filmed people committing offences against us but not women entering the clinic. Nobody in my organisation has ever called anyone a murderer.”

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Pro-choice group Sister Supporter have been among those campaigning for the clinic to have a safe zone which is “free from intimidation and harassment, allowing those who wish to exercise their legal right to healthcare to do so without interference, judgement and with the anonymity they are entitled to”.

Anna Veglio-White, the founder of the group, told the council meeting that members of the anti-abortion group had told one teenage client she would be “haunted by her baby”.

Richard Bentley, managing director at Marie Stopes UK, said: “This ground-breaking move by Ealing council sets a national precedent for ending the harassment of women using legal healthcare services. We hope that other local authorities will follow this example and act to increase protection for women in their area.”

A spokesman for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service said it welcomed the vote result and urged the government to put forward legislation to introduce buffer zones “as a matter of urgency”.

He added: “While today’s vote is undoubtedly a significant step forward for women and residents in Ealing, anti-abortion protests are a national problem in need of a national solution. The situation in Ealing is sadly not unique, and women and clinic staff across the country report being followed, filmed and harassed when trying to access or provide legal healthcare services. This has to stop.”

Stanley Ward
By Stanley Ward 12/10/2017 13:00:00