Anti-abortion protesters ban moves closer

Protesters outside a Twickenham abortion clinic are a step closer to being banned from holding vigils nearby, to make sure women using the facility are not harassed.

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Richmond Council’s Regulatory Committee voted unanimously to implement a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) outside the BPAS clinic in Rosslyn Road – the decision will be voted on at a future council meeting.

Women using the clinic, staff and residents have reported feeling intimidated and harassed by protesters, with some saying they had been shouted at and even filmed.

Protests have been held outside the clinic on and off for more than 10 years, but since September 2013 they have happened almost every day the centre has been open.

Claire McCullough, director of the Good Counsel Network – the organisation running the vigils – said the ban goes against their right to freedom of expression.

She said: “This is people who are ideologically opposed to what we are doing using the PSPO to make sure that we do not have any right to free speech.”

More than 3,000 people responded to a council consultation about the prospect of a PSPO at the end of 2018.

The most common behaviours witnessed by respondents at the vigils were handing out leaflets, displaying posters and praying.

But 49% of respondents reported seeing people made to feel upset or uncomfortable, 35% said they had seen people be harassed or intimidated, 22% said people had been shouted at, and 16% said they had seen people being followed.

Ms McCullough said: “We have a statement of peace that all our members sign.

“We are not allowed to call people names. We don’t start conversations with people unless they initiate it. We don’t ever have pictures of aborted babies.

“I would want to see people who are harassing people being arrested.”

At the February 6 meeting, BPAS public affairs and advocacy manager Rachael Clarke read out testimonies from staff and users of the clinic.

She said “distraught” women often needed to be escorted in and out of the centre, and staff – who use the back door to get in and out of work – had been told they were going to hell for killing babies.

Members and supporters of the Good Counsel Network told the committee that they are there to help women who are feeling pressured into having an abortion, for example by poverty.

But since the vigils began in earnest four years ago, residents have been campaigning for a PSPO.

The organisation Reclaim Rosslyn Road was represented at the meeting by resident Jeremy Rodell.

Afterwards, he said: “The decision is a fair one. I’m a great believer in freedom of speech, but it’s the right compromise.”

He told a story of one encounter with the protesters.

“A lady was engaged in conversation with a young woman,” he said.

“Politely, I walked up and asked if she was happy with the conversation. She said it was okay, but used my intervention to break it off and go inside.

“The protester said ‘you’ve just destroyed 45 minutes’ work’.

“They are using very sophisticated techniques. The young woman clearly wanted to get into the clinic.

“It made me very angry.”

Anyone in breach of the PSPO could be given a fine, with repeat offenders facing the prospect of prosecution.

The limits of a “buffer zone” were agreed, comprising the area around the clinic itself and going as far as St Margarets station.

Robyn Thomas, head of community safety at Richmond Council, said: “We have received a number of complaints over recent years regarding protests being held outside the BPAS Clinic in Rosslyn Road, which have caused those accessing and working there distress.

“Following a thorough and lengthy consultation, where over 3,000 individuals and groups took part, the overwhelming majority have told us that they want a PSPO around the Clinic.

“This PSPO is not designed to tell vigil holders and protesters they cannot protest or pray in this borough.

“The order has been designed to ensure that their rights to free speech must be balanced with the lawful rights of the users and staff at the clinic.”

Elizabeth Howard, spokeswoman for the Be Here For Me campaign said: “It is shocking to see how Richmond has acted on allegation rather than evidence in bringing in this censorship zone.

“The astonishingly broad nature of this PSPO shows that they are merely virtue signalling as opposed to protecting women, as they have deliberately chosen to outlaw charitable activity that has a profoundly positive impact for many vulnerable women.

“Harassment and intimidation is never acceptable outside abortion centres, and thankfully the council and police have wide powers to deal with any problematic behaviour.

“However, expelling pro-life vigil members at the behest of noisy activist groups in the absence of clear justification is extremely damaging for our society.

“This is Richmond Council saying “You’re on your own” to the brave women who testified about the help they received when they had nowhere else to turn.

“We look forward one day to the return of common sense and better solutions for the women in real need of help.”

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