A London council has banned prayer vigils outside an abortion clinic, in a possible test case for further crackdowns on pro-lifers.
Ealing Council voted unanimously to use a controversial legal mechanism, a Public Space Protection Order, to prevent members of the public from praying and offering support to pregnant women entering the Marie Stopes clinic.
The effort to ban the vigil has been accompanied by a broader political campaign, backed by around 100 MPs, to stop pro-life prayer vigils.
Among those opposing the Ealing ban were mothers who had planned to abort their children, but received help from the vigils.
The website Be Here For Me collected their stories. One said: “During the scan I saw my baby girl. She was very nice, playing, and putting her thumb in her mouth. But I didn’t have a choice about what I was going to do. I was crying, crying so much.”
She talked to a woman at the vigil who offered to help. The Good Counsel Network, an organisation which supports mothers in vulnerable situations, ensured she had accommodation, rent and food so that she would feel able to keep her baby, who is now 10 months old.
According to an attendee at the council vote, one mother “spontaneously threw herself on her knees and pleaded for the vigil to be able to stay and help other women like her”.
Pro-lifers were accused of harassing women at the vigils, which they strongly denied. Clare McCullough of the Good Counsel Network said that there is “not a scrap of evidence of any such behaviour”, despite “eighteen months of constant filming and recording by the ‘counter-protest’ group”.
The order makes it illegal for pro-lifers to offer support within 100 metres of the clinic. It is likely to come into force on April 23.
Public Space Protection Orders are opposed by the civil liberties group Liberty “because they are too widely drawn, with vague definitions of what can be criminalised, and carry disproportionately punitive sanctions”.
Alithea Williams of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, called the Ealing decision “truly authoritarian” and indicated that it may be open to legal challenge.
“For the first time, a council has banned peaceful public acts of witness and freedom of expression,” Williams said.
“However, what is most shocking is that a Council has voted to stop members of the public offering charitable help to vulnerable women.”
John Hansen-Brevetti, clinical operations manager at the clinic, told The Huffington Post that he was “hopeful that this is just the beginning, that other councils are watching and taking note, that Parliament itself, the Home Affairs Select Committee, will continue to look at this issue and find a solution that works not just for Ealing but for the whole of the UK.”
Other councils are considering similar bans, and Home Secretary Amber Rudd has launched a review of the issue. The government is currently considering the results of a consultation.