Council to consult over proposed buffer zone outside abortion clinic
The public will be invited to give opinions on a public space protection order targeting demonstrators.
The introduction of what is believed to be the UK’s first ever buffer zone to stop anti-abortion protesters from gathering outside an abortion clinic has come a step closer.
A cabinet of Ealing council unanimously voted to begin a public consultation on whether introducing a public space protection order (PSPO) may be the most appropriate measure to stop such demonstrations outside a Marie Stopes clinic in the west London borough.
In calling for a safe zone, councillor Binda Rai told the meeting that the protests were forcing vulnerable women seeking a legal treatment to face “emotional hijacking at the point of access” which is clearly not covered by legislation.
Ms Rai, who represents the Walpole ward which includes the clinic, said: “The PSPO outside a Marie Stopes clinic is unprecedented nationally. We know that other councils are watching what we do.”
The earliest that the eight-week public consultation could begin is January 29.
A council spokesman said a decision on whether or not to implement a PSPO will only be made once the consultation process has been completed and it is known whether or not the statutory criteria are met, including whether a PSPO will be a necessary and proportionate response to the issues that have been identified.
Ealing council deputy leader Ranjit Dheer told the hearing that women who want to use the clinic should not have to face “harassment, intimidation and distress”.
He described tensions outside the clinic as “intolerable” saying that “humiliation and distress” was being piled on fragile women including being “accosted” and called “murderers”.
Arguments from campaigners – both for and against a buffer zone – were heard.
A woman – named only as A – said in a read statement that she had got “real help” from someone outside a clinic when she was “confused, scared, mad, very upset and did not want an abortion.”
Julian Bell, leader if the Labour-run council, said he believed a PSPO was “potentially a proportionate response” and the “best way forward”.
He urged the government to find a “national solution” to the issue as a PSPO is time-limited and may be subject to a post code lottery in which some councils do not take the same approach.
Stating there is “a need for consistency,” he said: “We would welcome proposals from government.
“In the meantime we have a duty to act as a council and now we intend to do that.”
A gentle round of applause broke out from pro-life supporters as the council decision was made.
Marie Stopes UK managing director Richard Bentley noted that “a number of local authorities” are keeping a close eye on what is happening in Ealing while others including Birmingham and Portsmouth are “actively exploring” how to increase protection for women in their areas.
Describing the situation outside clinics as “harassment”, he said: “The majority of women who arrive at our clinics have already had a consultation with a trained healthcare professional in which they have talked through their options and have come to a decision that’s right for them.
“Strangers harassing them as they enter and leave the clinic does nothing to change that. All it does is upset women on what can already be a difficult day.”
Katherine O’Brien, of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, suggested that trying to negotiate or compromise with anti-abortion protesters has not worked.
She said: “Tonight’s decision will have implications outside of this one London borough. A number of councils are currently considering how to tackle anti-abortion activity, and this vote makes it clear that a public space protection order, creating a protest-free zone around clinics, is the best way to proceed on a local level.
“However, while Ealing Council’s action is clearly significant, anti-abortion clinic harassment is a national problem in need of a national solution.”