LONDON (AFP) - A ban on pro-life protests outside an abortion clinic in London came into force on Monday (April 23) in a first that pro-choice campaigners hope will set a precedent for the country.
The local authority in Ealing, west London, imposed an exclusion zone after claims that women and staff at the Marie Stopes clinic were being intimidated and harassed by vigils that have been held outside the building for more than 20 years.
The weekend before the ban came into force, a small group of people, including clergymen, gathered on the grass outside the clinic, praying out loud for the women inside and their children.
One of them stood by the entrance, offering leaflets to women going in, while on the ground, laminated colour photographs showing an unborn foetus were laid out.
Sitting in a fold-up chair in the shade of a tree, a rosary in his hand, local pensioner Eamonn Gill rejected claims of harassment, saying: "We're just offering help."
But he added: "People don't want to listen to the truth. They're using violence to abort a baby, to murder a baby. It feels pain, and they don't want to see it."
Abortion became legal in Britain by an act of Parliament that came into force 50 years ago on Friday. It has strong public support, but protests outside clinics are increasing, some by groups funded from the United States.
The buffer zone in Ealing, a leafy residential district, was introduced after a petition signed by 3,600 local residents, followed by a public consultation.
Weekly vigils have been held for 23 years at the clinic, which provides abortions and vasectomies on the state-run National Health Service (NHS), but in recent years these increased to almost daily.
Since 2015, there have also been counter-protests by local campaign group Sister Supporter.
Its founder Anna Veglio-White, now 25, grew up in the area and said she often saw women leaving the clinic in tears after being confronted by members of the vigil.
"You cannot avoid them and you feel so judged, because they are calling you a murderer," Veglio-White, who also organised the local petition, told AFP.
"I went past one day and they had plastic foetus dolls. Another time they were blocking the gate. They would call them 'mum' - it's so traumatic."
Before it made its decision, the council heard staff reports of how some clients were followed after leaving, and they themselves faced verbal abuse and were spat at.
'I WOULD NOT HAVE HAD MY BABY'
No protests from either side are allowed inside the buffer zone, but there is a designated space for limited vigils to continue in sight of the clinic.
However, the national Society for the Protection of Unborn Children has condemned it as "an all-out attack on the freedom of expression and on the freedom to pray".
Clare McCullough, director of the Good Counsel Network, one of several groups that holds the vigils, strongly denies any harassment or intimidation.
"It's about giving them information," she told AFP, saying that her group - which also holds vigils at two other London clinics - has helped more than 500 women in Ealing in the last five years.
Alina Dulgheriu, a 34-year-old Romanian, said it was the support offered by the network that stopped her having an abortion when she was pregnant with her daughter.
Although she never wanted a termination, she almost went ahead because "my partner didn't want the baby, and I was working as a live-in nanny and didn't have any money".
The network offered financial support until she could return to work, she said.
Holding the five-year-old girl's hand as they joined the vigil, she said: "If they were not there, I would not have had Sarah."
'IT'S NOT FAIR'
The Ealing buffer zone is created by a public spaces protection order (PSPO), a local by-law usually deployed to deter people drinking alcohol or dealing drugs.
It will last three years, but local councillor Binda Rai is hoping it will put pressure on the government to take action at a national level.
"It's not fair to the other women up and down the country" to wait for local action, she told AFP.
Federal or state laws protecting abortion clinics are already in place in Australia, Canada and the US.
Interior minister Amber Rudd launched a review into the issue in November.
"It is completely unacceptable that anyone should feel harassed or intimidated simply for exercising their legal right to healthcare advice and treatment," she said.