Anti-abortion protesters will be banned from campaigning outside an abortion clinic in Richmond after the council approved plans to create an exclusion zone around the building on Tuesday.
The west London authority plans to introduce a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) around the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) Clinic on Rosslyn Road after years of campaigning by local people on the issue.
The PSPO will create a “buffer zone” around the clinic that will criminalise pro-life protests near the clinic.
Richmond copied the method used by Ealing Council last year, which was the first local authority in the country to ban anti-abortion protesters outside one of its clinics.
The leader of local campaign group Reclaim Rosslyn Road, Caroline Rayfield, said some people who interacted with the protesters were called “murderers, followed home and physically prevented from entering the building.”
Rayfield said residents on the street who complained to the anti-abortion protesters about their actions would face harassment and sometimes be followed back to their home.
Liberal Democrat Councillor James Chard said: “It’s been an issue for many years. Residents, staff, and the people who use the clinic, feel some of the campaigners are very intrusive.”
Chard said the motion received cross-party support from the Conservatives and the Greens within the council.
He said he’d met some of the anti-abortion campaigners and he believed they were “welling meaning people” but they don’t “understand the level of upset their presence can cause to women who want privacy when visiting the clinic.”
A six-week consultation period about the issue was held in 2018 which received over 3,000 responses, with over 80% in favour of creating an exclusion zone around the clinic.
In evidence submitted during the consultation, one woman told BPAS the protesters were: “handing out leaflets, harassing patients, saying inappropriate comments. It made me feel awful. Like I’m a horrific person. Like my body isn’t my own. Like I’m a murderer.”
Another said: “They were pressuring me against my decision. Showed me a model of a foetus. I felt pressured and shamed as this was already a difficult decision to begin with.”
BPAS said in a statement they were overjoyed by the council’s decision, saying they’d faced protests every day since 2014, and in one month they received 323 complaints about the campaigners.
They said: “The team can now continue to offer a safe and accessible health service knowing that the women attending the clinic will be free from intimidation and harassment from anti-abortion protesters.
“The team strongly believe in the right for women to make decisions about their own body without judgement or fear and this decision will allow all our staff to carry on creating a safe space for women to safely discuss and explore their pregnancy options.”
Chard, who was one of the most vocal backers of the motion on the council, said the PSPO wasn’t meant to silence the abortion debate, with several people who opposed abortion on the council supporting the motion.
He said the PSPO was about “the particular intrusion caused by a persistent presence near to a clinic on a quiet residential street. Women wanting to use these services shouldn’t be put under that sort of pressure.”
Richmond cabinet member for community safety, Liz Jaeger, said: “In making this decision the council has determined the PSPO strikes the right balance, protecting the human rights of the patients and staff of the BPAS Clinic to use the services and go to work without fear and in privacy.”
The anti-abortion campaign group Be Here For Me condemned Richmond Council’s decision, saying the they had failed to “substantiate” claims anti-abortion protesters had “harassed” people outside the clinic.
The council must wait at least six weeks before they implement the PSPO to allow time for people to lodge an appeal against the decision.
The PSPO is not the perfect tool for creating exclusion zones around abortion clinics because they must be renewed every three years, requiring councils and police officers to gather a similar level of evidence as before.
They are also open to being legally challenged, which can be costly for cash-strapped councils.
Chard said he supported national legislation specifically for exclusion zones, saying: “This would reduce the time and cost to taxpayers involved in introducing such zones and potentially defending them in court, as we know well-funded anti-abortion groups are litigious on such matters.”
Following the decision of Ealing Council in 2018 former home secretary Amber Rudd launched a review into whether UK-wide legislation around the issue was needed.
The idea was rejected in September by current home secretary Sajid Javid saying the policy suggestion was “not a proportionate response”.
Clarification: We have updated this article to make clear the people who were followed home that Caroline Rayfield mentioned in her quote were local residents, not women who were using the clinic.