We have launched a new website and this page has been archived.Find out more

[Skip to Content]

19 April 2018

Ealing Council’s decision to institute a censorship zone is a brazen attack on civil liberties

Laurence Wilkinson is legal counsel with ADF International 

On Tuesday, 10 April, Ealing Council’s cabinet voted to introduce a ‘safe zone’ outside of the Marie Stopes abortion centre on Mattock Lane. Ealing Council said that it was an “absolutely necessary” move to combat rife “harassment and intimidation” occurring outside the centre. Council leader Julian Bell, noting that he was a practicing Christian, said that he was “very proud” that the council had taken action that led the way on the issue nationally. 

I’ll start by saying that I do not think excuses can be made for harassing and intimidating women who are walking into an abortion centre. Anyone who is found to be harassing and intimidating women should face the full force of the law, and police and councils should act decisively to prevent behaviour that is genuinely intimidating and harassing women. But this is where my agreement with Ealing Council and Councillor Bell ends. 

What Ealing Council has done to address the situation outside of the Marie Stopes on Mattock Lane is implement a relatively obscure legal measure called a Public Spaces Protection Order (or PSPO). These orders were introduced in 2014 to tackle anti-social behaviour and give councils extraordinarily wide powers to criminalise certain behaviours that are otherwise legal if they are considered to have a “detrimental effect” on the quality of life of the locality. 

There have already been numerous concerns raised by civil liberties groups about the scope for councils to abuse PSPOs, but as the legal basis to challenge these orders is so narrow, they have never been subject to court scrutiny before. This has led to a bizarre situation where councils have criminalised riding a bicycle in a manner that would “give reasonable grounds for annoyance” (in Richmond Park), or simply gathering in groups of two or more “unless going to or from a parked vehicle or waiting for a scheduled bus at a designated bus stop” (in Hayes Town Centre)

Ealing Council is now looking to bring in a broad and vague PSPO which criminalises the following behaviour: “Protesting, namely engaging in any act of approval/disapproval or attempted act of approval/disapproval, with respect to issues related to abortion services, by any means. This includes but is not limited to graphic, verbal or written means, prayer or counselling.” It would also criminalise “attempting to interfere, whether verbally or physically, with a service user or member of staff”; as well as “displaying any text or images relating directly or indirectly to the termination of pregnancy”. 

It doesn’t take a trip to a lawyer to explain that this wording goes far beyond activity that would harass or intimidate someone. It amounts to a censorship zone, in which you are not only banned from speaking about abortion at all, but you cannot pray about abortion (even silently!) or you will be committing a criminal offence. 

They have introduced a small ‘protest zone’ about 100m away from the centre that will allow a maximum of four people to protest or pray about abortion within certain parameters, but anything outside of the designated area will break the law. 

While some might argue that there is no need to be outside an abortion centre, the reality is that this PSPO is intended to eradicate the presence of pro-life groups that have had a presence outside Marie Stopes for more than 20 years. Some of these groups, such as the Good Counsel Network, are there to provide practical, financial and moral support to pregnant women who do want to continue with their pregnancies. 

There are hundreds of vulnerable women who have taken up this support across the country, and campaign groups against the PSPO in Ealing have recently started to showcase some of their stories. And despite many of the recent claims that have appeared in the media, the groups that offer this tangible support do it in a completely innocuous way: a polite offer of a leaflet, which can be refused without difficulty. These gentle approaches, which offer a lifeline to many who feel forced by their circumstances into having an abortion, have been mischaracterised as forceful, aggressive and intimidating. 

For all the public grandstanding that Ealing Council has been doing since they first passed a motion on the issue last October, it has been the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) pushing a national campaign to introduce ‘buffer zones’ outside of abortion centres. BPAS strongly objects to the notion that anyone else could possibly offer women alternatives at the door of an abortion centre, particularly pro-life groups, and so resorted to tarnishing their image as far as possible. 

A local pro-abortion group called Sister Supporter appeared outside the Ealing centre around two years ago, and has been protesting the presence of the pro-life groups ever since. The group has been content to inflame the situation, as getting banned from appearing outside the clinic along with the pro-life groups achieves their raison d’etre. The council relied heavily on Sister Supporter’s submissions throughout the consultation exercise, and ultimately concluded that the mere presence of anyone outside the abortion clinic could amount to harassment and intimidation. 

However, in the absence of any police prosecutions in the area, it seems completely unreasonable to purge the area of a pro-life presence without first utilising more targeted measures. It also shows that PSPOs are ripe for abuse if they can be used by a council to achieve the aims of an ideologically driven campaign group. Make no mistake about it, the decision was, at its very core, about conflicting views on abortion, and freedom of speech more generally.