If you walk past an abortion clinic in the UK, you'll likely come across a group of people protesting outside the building. Many women and staff trying to access and provide legal healthcare report being harassed and intimidated by anti-abortion groups holding daily vigils.
But one council has taken a stand against this behaviour, in a new move that will hopefully make women feel safer when they exercise control over their bodies. Ealing council, in west London, has voted to introduce a safe zone outside a Marie Stopes clinic after women reported feeling bullied outside the premises.
The idea of "buffer zones" outside abortion clinics to protect women has long been debated, but Ealing council will be the first to implement the policy in the UK. It's a momentous step that could encourage more councils across the country to follow suit.
The safe zone will come into force on Monday 23rd April and will mean that neither anti- nor pro-abortion protesters can stand within 100 metres of the clinic, which has long been subject to particularly fervent protests. Anyone who breaks the Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) will be committing a crime and could be prosecuted or fined.
During the consultation process, the council said the motion was not passing judgment for or against abortion, which has been legally available in Great Britain since 1967. "It is a motion that seeks to protect the rights of individuals from harassment and intimidation when accessing legally existing health services and of local residents not to be exposed to related disruption and distress on a daily basis."
Protesters outside the clinic, armed with placards and prayer beads, "use deliberately disturbing and graphic images and models, including those purporting to be of dismembered foetuses," as well as distributing leaflets containing false information about abortion. Many even follow, record and question women as they enter or leave the centres, the council said.
They said I was a murderer... that I was killing something with a heartbeat
Lisa Jones, who was a victim of the protesters' behaviour when she sought an abortion at the clinic years ago based on doctors' advice, says what happened still haunts her today. "They said I was a murderer... that I was killing something with a heartbeat," she told the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme.
"I was happy to come out of clinic, go home and risk my life [by not having the procedure] because I didn't want to be branded a murderer," she said. "But I couldn't." She described anti-abortion protests outside clinics as "cruel [and] unfair. I don't think it should be allowed."
Richard Bentley, managing director at Marie Stopes UK, called the move "a landmark decision for women" and praised Ealing council "for recognising the emotional distress" that anti-abortion groups create, and "for taking proportionate action to protect the privacy and dignity of women accessing our clinic in the borough."
“This was never about protest. It was about small groups of strangers choosing to gather by our entrance gates where they could harass and intimidate women and try to prevent them from accessing healthcare to which they are legally entitled. Ealing council has sent a clear message that this kind of behaviour should not be tolerated, and that these groups have no justification for trying to involve themselves in one of the most personal decisions a woman can make."
He said other councils had been watching the process, with some considering similar measures to protect women outside clinics in their areas. "Ultimately, we believe every woman in the UK should be able to access abortion services without harassment and we hope this decision marks the beginning of the end of the harassment these groups undertake nationwide.”
Ealing-based pro-choice group Sister Supporter, which collated more than 3,500 signatures in support of creating a safe area for women around the clinic, said it was overjoyed by the council's decision. Founder Anna Veglio-White told Refinery29: “Sister Supporter are elated that after two and a half years of tireless campaigning, Ealing council have voted in this landmark order."
The group said the protection order is about "redressing the current imbalance of rights" outside the clinic, and that it could trigger "a domino effect" among councils and "hopefully lead to a change in national legislation".
"With this move, progress in Northern Ireland and the referendum on the 25th May in the Republic of Ireland, 2018 is set to be the biggest in reproductive rights history since 1967.”
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan also praised Ealing council, saying "behaviour that seeks to deliberately target women for harassment and intimidation should not be tolerated."
Anti-abortion protesters, including The Good Counsel Network, which holds daily vigils outside the clinic, and Be Here for Me, have denied harassing women and said they wanted to support women who may not want an abortion but felt like they had no other choice.
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