Pro-life protesters have pledged to continue standing outside an abortion clinic in London “until they are told otherwise”, despite a council’s decision to ban them from doing so.
Demonstrators remained outside the Marie Stopes clinic on Mattock Lane, Ealing on Wednesday despite the west London borough approving an exclusion zone around it the previous evening.
The government is likely to come under increasing pressure to change the law to prevent harassment outside family planning facilities across the country, now that the Ealing vote has passed, setting UK precedent.
Brian Collins, a member Good Counsel Network, which holds daily vigils outside of abortion clinics across the UK, told HuffPost UK: “I have been coming here to hold vigils and pray for several years now.
“I am planning to carry on as usual here until I am told otherwise. But I am here in a personal capacity, not on behalf of any organisation and I am not a representative of any group.”
Other demonstrators stood outside the clinic entrance on Wednesday holding rosary beads and handing out leaflets.
One woman, who asked not to be named, said: “I think the plan is just to carry on as we have been doing until the order comes into force.
“We are offering people leaflets only if they want them. We will respect wishes.”
More than 3,000 people responded to a public consultation on Ealing Council’s proposal to band the protestors – most of whom were in favour.
The order, which prevents protests within 300 metres of the clinic building, is expected to come into force within five days.
The effects of the decision in Ealing could have significant repercussions far outside the west London borough, with several other councils across the country already working on plans to clamp down on incidents.
A spokesperson for the Local Government Association (LGA) said: “Councils are exploring a range of options to address what may be criminal behaviour and are working closely with the police on a proportionate response.”
More than 100 MPs have signed a letter spearheaded by the Ealing Central MP Rupa Huq, who lobbied for the “safe zone” to be set up. The letter calls for the introduction of buffer zones around clinics nationwide.
The Home Office is currently gathering evidence on levels of recorded harassment to assess whether a change in the law is needed.
Liberal Democrat peer Lord David Steel, who spearheaded the 1967 Abortion Act as an MP, is among those urging home secretary Amber Rudd to speed up a review of current legislation to protect those visiting abortion clinics.
The 81-year-old is currently on a Parliamentary delegation to Taiwan alongside Huq. He said the council cabinet’s decision was “very good news indeed” and added it was important the UK “did not go down the same route as America”, where doctors performing terminations have become targets of attacks.
His Private Members Bill led to the implementation of the Abortion Act itself – which legalised terminations in the UK – and he revealed in a recent Lords debate that he still receives hate mail over his actions as a 29-year-old “baby of the House”.
Huq, whose constituency includes the clinic and surrounding area, said: “I don’t agree with lots that the Lib Dems have done – their support of the coalition government being the most damaging – but I have enormous respect for Lord Steel.
“His bill 51 years ago has improved society for the better by saving women from the dangerous DIY backstreet methods of terminations that took place up until then,” she added.
She said Ealing Council’s decision was not about personal views on abortion, but keeping women safe and free from harassment.
A spokesperson for the Home Office: “It is completely unacceptable that anyone should feel harassed or intimidated simply for exercising their legal right to healthcare advice and treatment.
“The Home Secretary ordered an in-depth assessment of protests outside abortion clinics following concerns about the tactics of some of the protest activity, this work is continuing apace.”
Portsmouth, Southwark and Manchester City Council are all considering how to deal with pro-life protestors, with Southwark Council alleging that some campaigners have been filming patients coming in an out of a local clinic.
In Lambeth, a public consultation into implementing public space protection orders (PSPO) – the same tactic as used in Ealing – trigged a “very, very strong response” from residents which was “overwhelmingly in favour” of putting the orders in place, one councillor said. The council is currently considering how to move forward with the plan.
Meanwhile, councillors in Richmond upon Thames have been gathering evidence on the issue. Councillor Mark Boyle, cabinet member for community safety, said that at least four protestors are usually stationed outside of a clinic in Twickenham.
“We have had a lot of unhappy residents and visitors to the clinic thanks to anti-social behaviour and harassment,” he told HuffPost UK.
“It’s not just people who are visiting the clinic either who are being harassed - they are targeting some women just because they’re female. One of the council officers who is working on the research was harassed,” Boyle added.
According to Marie Stopes UK and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), councils in Birmingham, Leeds and Bournemouth have also been considering action.
“We know that councils have been waiting for Ealing to proceed, so we hope that this step will show them that support for stopping this sort of activity is high, and that their local residents want them to act,” a BPAS spokesperson said.
“But it’s important to know that these ten councils don’t cover the whole problem.
“In the last year, there have been protests reported at 42 clinics around the UK. This is a national problem that needs a national solution,” they added.
But Clare Mulvany, from the Good Counsel Network, said the decision in Ealing sets a “dangerous precedent for human rights”.
“The Good Counsel Network have always stayed within the law, but we will be challenging the PSPO,” she said, adding that they group would be “looking into the wording” of the order.
“It criminalises perfectly normal behaviour - we are offering help to women.”