Why the decision to ban protests at this abortion clinic is so important

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe

It’s been a long time coming, but the law might finally be changing when it comes to the legality of protests outside of abortion clinics.

Ealing council has become the first in the country to officially decide to ban pro-life campaigners from protesting outside of clinics in the borough, after more than 3,500 people signed a petition to create a buffer zone around a Marie Stopes clinic in the area.

The petition, created by women’s rights group Sister Supporter, called for protestors to be blocked from being within a certain distance of the clinic entrance by using a public space protection order (PSPO), following reports that women entering the clinic were being harassed.

Labour Councillor Binda Rai, who brought the motion at a council meeting, said the landmark decision could have “national implications”, and that the ruling “is really a stand for women, and for women's rights to access healthcare that is legally available to them”.

And Anna Veglio-White, who founded Sister Supporter, echoed her sentiments. The campaigner told, “A PSPO in Ealing and beyond means the very personal decision of a termination would remain just that – personal – and people using the service would be free from judgment, intimidation and harassment.

“When you think about what a PSPO would mean, it seems shocking that it isn't already in place.”

In recent years, the brutal tactics employed by American pro-life campaigners have been trickling across the pond, with half of the abortion clinics in England and Wales now playing unwitting hosts to anti-choice protests.

Despite abortion being legal in England, Scotland and Wales since 1967, women visiting clinics up and down the country have found themselves faced with harassment from protestors.

And evidence gathered by Sister Supporter over the past two years found women visiting the Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing were subjected to walking past anti-abortion vigils, with protestors employing tactics such as shouting prayers and using graphic, bloodied banners and tiny, lifelike plastic foetuses.

“The impact of this invasion on service users privacy is immeasurable,” Veglio-White said. “The emotionally manipulative language they use, such as calling the women mum and telling them they should have 'kept their baby' leaves women lastingly traumatised, and the vigil is often the only negative thing about the entire experience.

“They don't know, and have no right to know, why people are accessing that service and their accosting of people at the gates is cruel and unnecessary.”

Pro-life protestors in the US earlier this year
Pro-life protestors in the US earlier this year

Following the ruling by Ealing council, Richard Bentley, the managing director of Marie Stopes UK, praised the decision as being truly “groundbreaking”.

“We hope that other local authorities will follow this example and act to increase protection for women in their area,” he told BBC News.

And rolling out the campaign to the rest of the country is exactly what Viglio-White plans to do next.

“We want to encourage other councils all over the country to follow suit, whilst simultaneously campaigning the government for nationwide buffer zones,” she said.

The ruling also had the support of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, who said in a statement, “We urge the government to follow the example set by Ealing Council, take responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of women seeking abortion care, and put forward legislation to introduce buffer zones as a matter of urgency.”

A pro-life protestor in London, 1979
A pro-life protestor in London, 1979

In the meantime, Viglio-White shared an important message for any woman visiting an abortion clinic who finds herself being harassed.

“Please remember that you are not alone, we are with you in solidarity and if you don't want to speak to people who are standing at the gate, you don't have to,” she said.

“Walk right past them or call the clinic and ask a member of the reception staff to come and walk you in.”

Here’s hoping it won’t be long before other councils in the country take note of such a vital issue.

Images: Rex Features