As street tensions increase, pro-choice group says a London council must curb ‘harassment’ of women at Marie Stopes clinic

Police Officers Removing Abortion Rights Demonstrators
 Police officers tackle a crowd of pro-choice abortion rights activists in New York. Photograph: Viviane Moos/Corbis via Getty Images

A London council will decide on Tuesday whether to pursue a public space protection order to prevent the harassment and intimidation of women accessing abortion services at the Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing, west London.

In the first case of its kind, Ealing council will debate the move after a petition from local pro-choice group, Sister Supporter, which demanded action to stop anti-abortion protesters holding vigils six days a week outside the clinic and approaching patients.

The protection orders, which replace asbos and are more commonly used to stop antisocial behaviour such as public drug-taking and drinking, make it possible to prosecute predefined activities within a geographical area. They have never been used in connection with abortion clinics.

“We’re hoping Ealing sets a precedent to stop the growing harassment of women using abortion services. What happens here could start a domino effect for other councils to follow,” said Anna Veglio-White, spokesperson for Sister Supporter.

The debate comes amid rising concern over increasing anti-abortion demonstrations around Britain, some of which have taken on a ferocity more usually associated with the US.

John Hansen-Brevetti, clinical operations manager at the Ealing centre, said other Marie Stopes clinics had reported an increase in protests and a more aggressive tone, prompting calls for new legislation. Anti-harassment laws are insufficient for this new mood, say pro-choice campaigners.

Anyone passing the Ealing clinic routinely sees large photos of foetuses on the pavement near the entrance, where one anti-abortion demonstrator hands leaflets to patients while a group stands nearby. The anti-abortion Good Counsel Network has reportedly also handed out plastic foetuses and testimonies collected by Sister Supporter include reports of women’s approaches to the clinic being streamed on Facebook Live.

The council meeting on Tuesday is the culmination of months of standoffs outside the clinic between the anti-abortion group and Sister Supporter, which has grown to 500 members since it was founded 18 months ago. Every week a large group of supporters, clad in pink hi-vis vests, form a picket line in an effort to block anti-abortion demonstrators approaching patients.

Clare McCullough, centre manager of the Good Counsel Network, which also holds vigils outside two other Marie Stopes clinics, claimed her group had to request a police presence on Saturdays to stop “intimidation by Sister Supporter”, whose members she accused of “seeking to foment violence”.

The network was set up by a group of Roman Catholics but is not now church-affiliated, she said.

“We’ve been holding vigils in Ealing for 23 years and no one has ever been charged with harassment,” said McCullough, adding that if the protection order was introduced, “we will continue to do what we do, just further down the road”.

Pro-choice campaigners
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 Pro-choice campaigners from Sister Supporter outside the Marie Stopes abortion clinic in Ealing, London.

But for Veglio-White, the increasing hostility of the protesters was a concern. “Local people were saying there should be a counter-demonstration. Unless there is a clinic near them, people don’t see how aggressive the pro-life movement in the UK is becoming.”

Hansen-Brevetti said the harassment had crossed a line into endangering women’s safety. “What people don’t know is that they face this when they leave the clinic too. We’ve done everything we can to get them in a better place physically and emotionally and then they are hounded down the road as they leave.”

He backs the motion to be debated, which states that it is explicitly not in favour of or against abortion but seeks to stop the intimidation of women.

The campaign to stop the anti-abortion protests has been backed by Dr Rupa Huq, Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton, who has raised the issue in the Commons. She said: “The people who frustrate the rights of women accessing NHS-provided services and obstruct the pavement in the name of religion using moral blackmail are bullies of the worst kind that need stopping in their tracks.

“The council route is great but, in the meantime, as part of a wider strategy to address deficiencies in existing public order legislation that see the police hamstrung all over the country … I am working with BPAS [British Pregnancy Advisory Service] to amend forthcoming domestic violence legislation in order that a cordon sanitaire can be introduced around these facilities, so that women can use their services, free from harassment.”

One clinic worker, who did not want to give her name, said the anti-abortion protesters could be heard inside the building, and distressed patients had begged staff to stop the vigils. The disruption has also drawn complaints from residents.

Jodie Vickery, whose flat is opposite the clinic, said: “I have had the church group follow me into the park preaching at me quite forcefully and their presence makes residents feel uncomfortable. It’s also a waste of police time.”

Siobhan Appleton, who passes the clinic on the way to work, said the protests had raised difficult discussions with her children. “These vigils put you in the position of having to explain to your kids why these people are there. A discussion on the merits or otherwise of our abortion laws is one I’d like to have with my kids when they are ready – not because of this group.”

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/07/us-abortion-uk-intimidation-london-marie-stopes