LONDON – As a London borough considers adopting a buffer zone around its abortion clinic to keep pro-life activists at a distance, one such group says the measure would discriminate against women who are helped through prayer and support vigils.
The Ealing Council, which serves the west London borough, considered the ordinance during an April 10 meeting.
It follows a report recommending that a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) with a censorship zone be set up around the Marie Stopes Clinic, which performs about 7,000 medical and surgical abortions a year.
“The report ignores the testimony of women who have been helped by vigils,” said an April 5 statement from Be Here For Me, a pro-life organization which is fighting against the proposed buffer zone measure.
“The PSPO is so broadly worded that it criminalizes offers of support to women, as well as criminalizing prayer,” the statement continued.
The council denies it is criminalizing prayer. Its report states that “’It should be clear from the order that the only ‘prayer’ which is prohibited is that which amounts to an act of approval/disapproval of issues relating to abortion services … It is not a general ban on prayer and it applies only within the ‘safe zone’ defined by the order.”
Be Here for Me has said that Ealing Council has “swallowed the pro-choice narrative without question.”
The pro-life group has primarily advocated against a PSPO because of the women who have been aided and supported through pro-life groups outside of the abortion clinics. The group has published multiple testimonies telling the stories of women who have been assured and supported through the prayer vigils.
“When I was pregnant, I was lost, confused, I didn’t know what to do… I was worried because I was on my own,” said a woman who testified on the Be Here For Me website, saying she went to an abortion clinic to terminate her pregnancy, but changed her mind.
“When I got there I met a lady outside the abortion clinic… I told her everything,” she continued, saying that “if there was no one outside the clinic I don’t think I would have kept the baby.”
She also noted that “seeing my baby now, I’m so happy that I met someone that very day.”
Another woman said the protester outside the abortion clinic “was our angel,” and another noted that she “felt under strong pressure to have an abortion,” but was relieved when she spoke to someone who was offering support outside of the clinic.
The proposed buffer zone has come amid allegations of intimidation and threats from protesters outside abortion clinics.
However, pro-life groups have denied the accusations. Antonia Tully of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children told members of parliament that the alleged intimidation “is not what is happening,” according to The Telegraph.
Another SPUC spokesperson, Alithea Williams, has said that “if people were genuinely being intimidated then of course we would want to condemn that, but there are laws in place about harassment and intimidation and nobody has been arrested at these sites.”
The Be Here For Me organization is hosting a rally at the town hall on Tuesday as the Ealing Council cabinet meets to vote on the buffer zone. The rally aims to “send a clear message to the Ealing Council and the media assembled that there is strong opposition to banning help outside abortion centers.”
“This will be the end of a vital support option that hundreds of women have accessed at Ealing in recent years,” said the Be Here For Me group.
If the Ealing Council passes the proposed buffer zone, it will be the first location in United Kingdom to have an enforced PSPO. Other locales, including Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, Portsmouth, and two other London boroughs have considered similar measures.
Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has said that “behaviour that seeks to deliberately target women for harassment and intimidation should not be tolerated,” and a local Labour MP, Rupa Haq, has said that the buffer zone is meant “not to stop protests, but to ask protesters to instead make use of the many places they could protest – from Parliament Square to town centres … The women accessing clinics are not seeking debate – they are trying to make their own personal decision about their own pregnancy.”
The matter of buffer zones around abortion clinics is also being discussed in the British Parliament.
MPs have heard testimonies of harassment during a recent parliamentary committee, and Home Secretary Amber Rudd has ordered an assessment of protests outside abortion clinics. Rudd has said that “it is completely unacceptable that anyone should feel harassed or intimidated simply for exercising their legal right to healthcare advice and treatment. The decision to have an abortion is already an incredibly personal one, without women being further pressured by aggressive protesters.”
Will Quince, a Conservative MP, told The Telegraph that “Looking at legislation to introduce buffer zones or exclusion zones for protesting around clinics of this nature is something we have to look at … I think we do need to be looking to legislate.”
In the U.S., a July 2017 city ordinance in Louisville, Kentucky, created a temporary buffer zone around the city’s only abortion clinic. In 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down on free-speech grounds a Massachusetts law requiring a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics, only to have the state legislature enact a new 25-foot zone.