A west London council is to hold a historic vote on whether to create a buffer zone around an abortion clinic to shield women from anti-abortion protesters, in a move that could pave the way for councils across the country to take similar action.
The potentially radical move by Ealing council, which has said it wished to protect women from distress and intimidation at the Marie Stopes clinic, has been backed by high-profile politicians including Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn.
Councillors could decide to impose a public spaces protection order (PSPO) on Tuesday evening, which is normally used to deal with antisocial behaviour.
The Catholic anti-abortion Good Counsel Network has held regular protests outside the clinic, which have included handing women teddy bears and calling them “mum”. The group has denied it was harassing women going inside the clinic.
Anna Veglio-White, founder of the pro-choice organisation Sister Supporter, , said women had been asked to pick pink or blue rosaries for the sex of their unborn child, priests had asked women to “give their child a birthday present” and that women had been approached directly at the front of the clinic.
“There is a pavement counsellor at each gate so women cannot avoid them,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “The gate is narrow so they have to shuffle past … there is no choice but to walk past these people.
“The leaflets they hand out tell women they are going to get breast cancer if they have an abortion … these women are the most vulnerable and need to go to the clinic to speak to a trained counsellor.”
Clare McCullough, of the Good Counsel Network, denied that women were being harassed and said more than 500 women had turned around because of their efforts.
“The women we speak to are being offered a leaflet, offered help, and hundreds of women are accepting that vote,” she said. “These are women who have no alternative but abortion – illegal immigrants, victims of domestic violence. We’re telling them there are alternatives if they want them.”
Rupa Huq, the Labour MP for Ealing Central, said hate mail and foetus dolls had been sent to her parliamentary office after she had raised the issue, and that the problem was one that needed a national not just local response.
“My interest in this matter predates me being an MP,” she said. “As lifelong Ealing resident I have noticed women seeking to use the Marie Stopes clinic in Mattock Lane being impeded in their wish to access services for the past two decades.
“Of course I value public protest, but intervention in a manner which might be termed emotional blackmail at this point – at the clinic gate when vulnerable women are proceeding with what might be the most difficult decision of their lives – is not the time or place.”
Over the past six months, authorities in Birmingham, Manchester, Portsmouth and two other London boroughs, Lambeth and Richmond, have also discussed taking action.
Manchester city council passed a motion to investigate intimidation and harassment outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Fallowfield; Birmingham city council discussed a similar motion in December, proposed by two Labour councillors.
More than 113 MPs have also signed a letter, coordinated by Huq, supporting the proposals, including Corbyn and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as prominent Conservative MPs including Michael Fabricant and Zac Goldsmith.