01:31 - Source: CNN
Anti-abortion protests banned outside London clinic

Story highlights

Ealing council approves a Public Spaces Protection Order around facility

The order pushes any demonstrations to a perimeter around the center

London CNN  — 

A London council has taken the unprecedented step of establishing a buffer zone outside a sexual health clinic in a bid to protect women from protesters accused of harassment and verbal abuse.

On Tuesday, cabinet members in the West London borough of Ealing approved the introduction of the country’s first Public Spaces Protection Order around a Marie Stopes facility that provides abortion services.

Marie Stopes is a British reproductive health charity that provides treatment, counseling, contraception and followup care. Abortion was legalized in England, Wales and Scotland through an act in 1967.

Ealing council leader Julian Bell said the issue of proximity of anti-abortion protests to the clinic has a “clear detrimental effect” on women using the services, those supporting them and clinic staff members. The order – which lasts three years – goes into effect April 23 and pushes any demonstrations to a defined perimeter around the facility. It will be reviewed in six months to determine its effect.

Anyone who breaches the order could face a fine or prosecution.

Demonstrators outside the clinic in West London on Tuesday, April 10.

Anti-abortion gatherings with attendees chanting prayers and singing hymns are common in the UK. But John Hansen Brevetti, clinical operations manager at the facility, says the practice has intensified in recent years.

“For about 20 years, we’ve had people outside our clinic – they call themselves ‘pavement counselors,’ ” said Brevetti, who is also a registered nurse. “Over the last two to three years in particular, we’ve seen an escalation, both in the size of the crowds and the tactics being used.

“They are starting to resemble more and more the tactics that you’d see in the United States: graphic imagery, more aggressive approaches to people.”

Several groups of protesters often conduct vigils outside the Marie Stopes clinic in London.

Anti-abortion groups deny claims of harassment.

“We are utterly disappointed that Ealing Council has responded to allegations brought forward by a protest group by passing an extreme and unwarranted measure that will ultimately leave vulnerable women worse off,” said a statement from the Good Counsel Network, which has been protesting outside the clinic. The group says it “exists to support women by providing support that simply isn’t available inside the abortion centers – we do not harass or intimidate anyone. Our repeated attempts to explain what we do to the Council have been ignored, and our actions have been consistently mischaracterised.”

“It’s what we expected after really what can only be described as a sham consultation by the council,” Elizabeth Howard, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Be Here for Me, told Britain’s Press Association. “It was skewed right from the beginning. Residents were asked whether we agreed with pro-lifers not being allowed to say ‘murderer.’ Now, no pro-lifer I know would ever call someone a murderer, because we’re here to support women who maybe feel they don’t have any other choice than abortion and don’t want an abortion.”

The clinic occupies an unassuming property on a verdant lane about a 30-minute drive from the city center. It could almost be mistaken for a family home were it not for the protesters, who arrive about 8 a.m. each morning with rosaries in hand.

They watch silently, holding “vigil” and ready, they say, to provide guidance and support to women in need.

Printouts of various stages of a fetus' gestation line the path to the clinic.

CNN did not witness any apparent intimidation or harassment by the campaigners, who declined to be interviewed, outside the clinic Tuesday. At one point, a woman emerged, and a man near the entrance gate sprang to attention and handed her a pamphlet with the words “Pregnant…. Worried? We’ll help!” emblazoned on it.

The pair talked for a few moments before the woman moved off.

The historic decision to create a buffer zone around the sexual health facility comes after months of public consultation, spearheaded by women from the community.

Sister Supporter, a grass-roots group founded by Ealing residents two years ago, petitioned the council to investigate behavior outside the clinic. The group gathered statements from clinic users as well as videos and photographs of protesters holding signs reading “thou shalt not kill’ and “give your baby a present: a birthday.”

A clinic visitor is approached by an protestor upon exiting the facility on Tuesday.

The group argues that its “photographic evidence” helps demonstrate “the pro-life presence goes far beyond ‘offering alternatives to abortion and financial and moral support,’ as they claim.”

Although activists and abortion charities welcomed the decision, many say the government needs to step up and introduce legislation to tackle the issue of harassment.

“The protests in Ealing are sadly not isolated incidents,” the charity British Pregnancy Advisory Service said in a statement. “On a daily basis, women across the country are being confronted by increasingly aggressive groups of protesters as they try to access safe, legal healthcare. This isn’t about the rights and wrongs of abortion – this is about the harassment of women.”

Eve Veglio-White, a Sister Supporter campaigner, agreed. “We want a national solution with legislation that is for this problem specifically. It shouldn’t be up to the residents and clinic users and the staff in the individual area to solve the problem. The government needs to step in and protect women.”

Similar measures are being explored by councils in Manchester, Birmingham and Portsmouth. In October, 113 lawmakers wrote to Home Secretary Amber Rudd to call for legislation.

Brevetti says the uptick in demonstrations outside facilities has been spreading to doctors and hospitals, and he fears what could happen without more regulation.

“I’d be very scared for our staff and for patients if it was allowed to get to the point like it is in the United States, where you have to hire security guards, where staff have to take different routes to work each day for their own protection. We don’t want to see it get to that point,” he said.

Clinical operations manager John Hansen Brevetti says calls for safe zone are not an attempt to curtail free speech.

“We’re really hoping that Parliament is watching and takes a cue from the leadership shown by Ealing council and starts to look at UK-wide solutions to protect people from that kind of activity.”