British lawyer questions need for buffer zones around abortion clinics

(Reuters/Adrees Latif)A pro-life activist holds a doll and banner while advocating his stance on abortion in this 2012 photo.

A Catholic lawyer has raised questions about the need for "buffer zones" around abortion clinics in several localities in Britain despite the lack of evidence that patients are being harassed outside the facilities.

Marie Stopes International, an international nongovernmental organization that provides abortion services, has called on the local Ealing Council to set up a buffer zone around its clinic in west London to keep pro-life advocates away from its patients.

However, Neil Addison, director of the Thomas More Legal Centre and author of two legal textbooks on U.K. harassment law, has contended that the organization had failed to prove that the pro-life sidewalk counselors had been intimidating its clients.

According to Catholic News Service (CNS), the Ealing council has now agreed to undertake an eight-week public consultation, in which it will hear a range of opinions before deciding whether or not to create the exclusion zone.

In a written submission to the council, Addison noted that there was no proof of anti-social behavior by members of the Good Counsel Network, a group that prays outside the clinic and hands out literature to women.

Addison pointed out that the clinic had not made any effort to obtain legal measures, such as injunctions, to prevent menacing behavior. He further noted that the injunctions had been successfully used in the last decade to keep animal rights protesters away from testing laboratories but could be granted only after judges considered evidence.

"If harassment has been occurring at the clinic, then I question why Marie Stopes has made no attempt to apply for injunctions under the Protection from Harassment Act," Addison wrote.

"I also question why police would not bring prosecutions under the Harassment Act or the Public Order Act if harassment is taking place," he added.

Ealing Councilman Ranjit Dheer said that the plan to set up the buffer zones was "about making sure residents and visitors to the clinic are not harassed and intimidated."

"The ... idea is to discourage anti-social behavior from happening in the first place, but if a problem persists, the order would make sure it can be dealt with effectively," he went on to say.

CNS noted that the local councils in London, Birmingham, Portsmouth and Manchester are also considering establishing buffer zones around abortion clinics.

Last November, the Southwark Borough Council voted unanimously to create a buffer zone around the Blackfriars Medical Practice in Colombo Street, which has an abortion facility run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).

But in late January, Councillor Barrie Hargrove, the cabinet member for communities, safety and leisure, acknowledged that there was not enough evidence to issue a Public Space Protection Order for a buffer zone as the most recent report of pro-life activity outside the facility was from January 2017.

Council leader Peter John has suggested that wardens could monitor the situation outside the clinic, while Liberal Democrat Councillor David Noakes said that he appreciates the "need for an evidence base for consideration of a PSPO."

Critics of PSPOs, which were introduced in 2014, have complained that it gives local councils too much power and allows them to criminalize "public activities that are merely considered unusual or unpopular, or with which the council disagree."

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