Radical feminist group Sister Supporter has won a fight to ban people praying and offering help to women near abortion clinics in North London, claiming it is “just the beginning” of outlawing pro-life direct action across the UK.
Pro-life groups say their free speech has been restricted and they merely aim to offer women help. London Mayor Sadiq Khan, however, welcomed the ban, accusing them of “deliberately target[ing] women for harassment”.
The so-called Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), voted for unanimously by Ealing Council, is the first of its kind in the UK and means the creation of a 100-metre “safe zone” around a Marie Stopes clinic in Mattock Lane, where outreach, prayer, and protest will be prohibited.
— SisterSupporter (@SisterSupporter) April 11, 2018
I welcome this move from Ealing Council. I respect the right to peaceful protest, but behaviour that seeks to deliberately target women for harassment and intimidation should not be tolerated. https://t.co/0J9exNIJay
— Sadiq Khan (@SadiqKhan) April 10, 2018
“Councillors agreed that the need to provide safe, unimpeded access to the clinic in the safe zone can be balanced with the Equality Act and the European Convention on Human Rights,” the council said in a statement.
Sister Supporter, which campaigned for the ban, welcomed the “progressive” move but called on the council to go further and for more pro-life activities to be banned. They said on their website:
“We believe that the offering of ‘alternative services’ needs to be listed as forbidden activities, and feel to have a designated space to pray and intimidate people within a ‘safe zone’ is confusing to say the least.”
A group called the Good Counsel Network (GCN) organise the majority of the prayer vigils and outreach near the North London clinic, as well as offering financial and practical help to the prospective mothers.
Despite accusations of harassment, the GCN says there has not been a single conviction or caution from police in their 23 years of work in Ealing.
Clare McCullough, director of the GCN, told BBC Radio 4 this Wednesday: “The women that we are speaking to are being offered a leaflet, offered help, [and] we’re seeing hundreds of women accepting this help.”
She claimed many were vulnerable and 500 they had spoken to were offered no alternative to abortion by the clinic. If her group is forced away from the clinic, many will miss out on help, she added.
Campaigners are hopeful it is "just the beginning" after a London council voted to introduce the first ban on protesters demonstrating outside an abortion clinic pic.twitter.com/4ybJAB565J
— Press Association (@PA) April 11, 2018
Former Liberal Democrat MP and Peer Lord Alton labelled the PSPOs “censorship zones” and claimed good people would be criminalised. He said in a statement: “Nobody condones any form of harassment and where that can be proven the individuals involved should be prosecuted as appropriate.
“However, the introduction of badly worded censorship zones cannot be good for society as they criminalise the good with the bad.
“This is damaging to charitable outreach, to free speech and to our democratic way of life and it overturns longstanding constitutional principles that minimal criminalisation.”
Responding to the ban on social media, UKIP London Assembly Member David Kurten added: “Ealing Council’s decision to ban peaceful pro-life vigils is a chilling erosion of free speech.
“Many mothers have been offered a different choice than abortion by [GCN] and others, and are now very happy that they decided to have their children.”
‘Orwellian’: London Assembly Votes to ‘Arrest and Prosecute’ Pro-Life Christians https://t.co/D471AI1HTW
— Breitbart London (@BreitbartLondon) December 23, 2017
The council vote follows a Labour Party motion passed by the London Assembly at the end of last year, calling on the Mayor “to clarify the powers available to [police] to arrest and prosecute” pro-life campaigners operating near clinics.
Conservative Assembly Members criticised the motion at the time, labelling it “illiberal” and “Orwellian”, as well as claiming it was an “attempt to ban protest partly because we disagree with the ethos of those protesters and that is fundamentally wrong”.
At government level, the Home Office is currently considering new legislation to legally ban prayer, outreach, and protest around abortion clinics nationwide.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd said last year: “The decision to have an abortion is already an incredibly personal one, without women being further pressured by aggressive protesters….
“The review will collect the detailed evidence and firm recommendations that allow us to take the right action to tackle this problem.”
Be Here For Me, a new group led by mothers campaigning against the “censorship zones”, organised a protest outside Ealing council on Tuesday night.
One mother, Alina, who was supported outside an abortion centre, told them: “What kind of society refuses help for a vulnerable woman? My little girl is here today because of the real practical and emotional support that I was given by a group outside the outside the Marie Stopes clinic.
“We have launched the Be Here For Me campaign so that our voices can be heard. We are inviting the UK public to come, hear our stories and then stand with us against any attempts to ban support for women like me outside abortion centres.”