Pro-life protesters will be banned from gathering outside an abortion clinic in west London after Ealing council unanimously voted to impose a safe zone last night.
A 100m 'buffer zone' will be set up around the Marie Stopes clinic, meaning both pro-life and pro-choice groups are prohibited, after a regular prayer vigil held by the Good Counsel Network was accused of intimidation.
The Home Office is considering responses to its own consultation on buffer zones and Ealing Council's decision to impose a public spaces protection order (PSPO) could set a precedent leading to a more widespread ban. Over the past six months, local authorities in Birmingham, Manchester, Portsmouth and two other London boroughs, Lambeth and Richmond, have also discussed taking action.
The council denied it was criminalising prayer as it considered a report on the results of a consultation.
'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 relation to abortion services,' the report considered on Tuesday night said. 'It is not a general ban on prayer and it applies only within the "safe zone" defined by the order.'
The Good Counsel Network denies the accusations of harassment after more than 300 people wrote to the council accusing pro-life protestors of 'intimidating and harassing' women. John Hansen Brevetti, the clinical operations manager at the clinic on Mattock Lane, claimed women had been told the ghost of their foetus would haunt them, had been told 'mummy mummy don't kill me', had holy water thrown on them and rosary beads thrust at them.
Outside the town hall before the vote a group of mothers who had decided against having an abortion after talking with protesters outside the clinic gathered to oppose the decision. They sung hymns and held signs reading 'don't criminalise help' and 'no censorship zones'.
Elizabeth Howard, spokeswoman for the Be Here for Me campaign, said Ealing Council had 'swallowed the pro choice narrative without question'.
Writing for Christian Today she said: 'It is the most vulnerable women who will suffer from this draconian measure. Women who have nowhere else to turn, who feel that abortion is their only choice but do not want to have to take that choice, women under pressure from partners, family or personal circumstances. There is practical help available for these women which is not on offer elsewhere, and the council wishes to take this away.'
Following a campaign against the vigil, Ealing Council launched a consultation, the results of which were considered in the report last night. It recommended imposing a PSPO and found that between 85 per cent and 90 per cent of respondents were supportive. Labour councillor Binda Rai stressed that that of those who responded to oppose the PSPO, only 6.6 per cent actually had an Ealing postcode. In contrast, those who supported it were overwhelmingly local residents, according to the Guardian.
Richard Bentley, Marie Stopes UK managing director, hailed the decision, which was greeted by applause in the council room, as 'a landmark decision for women'.
He said: 'This was never about protest. It was about small groups of strangers choosing to gather by our entrance gates where they could harass and intimidate women and try to prevent them from accessing healthcare to which they are legally entitled.'
Council leader Julian Bell said he felt the cabinet had done 'absolutely' the right thing.
He said: 'I believe that this is something that's long been needed, so it feels good that we are actually breaking the ground with this and leading the way.
'I'm personally a practising Christian myself and so I think it's important to recognise that this is about protecting women from harassment and intimidation.'
However Howard from Be Here for Me added: 'It's what we expected, after really what can only be described as a sham consultation by the council.
'We're here to support women who maybe feel they don't have any other choice than abortion and don't want an abortion.'