Buffer zone around London abortion clinic is a first for Britain

Wearing pink, members of the group Sister Supporter gather outside the abortion clinic in the Ealing neighborhood of London. A new buffer zone, the first in Britain, will prevent protesters from going within 100 meters of the clinic. The group was formed to protect women it feels are harassed by those who protest abortion outside clinics. Photo courtesy of Google Maps

LONDON (RNS) — A municipal council in a West London suburb voted this week to allow a buffer zone around an abortion clinic — the first such zone of its kind in Britain, where abortion has been legal for 50 years.

The move has buoyed abortion-rights supporters, who are looking for the creation of more such zones around the nation. But it troubles abortion opponents and others who say it violates their free speech rights.

The debate, while relatively new to Britain, has a long history in the United States, where cities and states have taken varied approaches to the zones. They have been tested in several courts, and then in the Supreme Court in 2014, which declared them presumptively illegal. 

In Ealing, the suburb where the 100-meter zone will be established, the clinic run by Marie Stopes International charity for more than 20 years had long served its clients without much protest. On most days, the only people who used to pass its door were commuters traveling to the nearby train station or dog walkers heading for the adjoining park.

Vigils outside the clinic used to consist of a few people on the weekend praying silently and saying the rosary. Some would also hand out leaflets to women arriving for abortions, offering to help them if they chose to continue their pregnancy.

But in the last few years the area in front of the clinic has become a culture war battleground.

Those praying and quietly offering assistance are still there. But noisier anti-abortion protesters with signs showing fetuses have staked out space outside the clinic. Also, more recently, groups of abortion-rights activists have added their — often equally loud voices — to the din outside the clinic.

Clare McCullough, of the Catholic organization Good Counsel Network, said the atmosphere between the rival factions has deteriorated in the past year.

“I thought at first there could be respect on either side about different points of view but instead it has become very aggressive. Sometimes they have snatched our posters.”

Meanwhile, the clinic says it has a log of its patients’ complaints about being told by protesters that God will punish them and protesters calling them “mum.”

McCullough denies her group has engaged in aggressive activity. She says offering help to women has led to 500 of them in the past five years changing their minds and not pursuing abortions at the Ealing clinic.

The abortion-rights group that demonstrates outside the clinic, Sister Supporter, has said that it is not anti-religion but that its opposition to abortion protesters “includes religious groups conducting prayer vigils in the immediate vicinity.”

When the zone is in place, anybody who breaches it will be liable for a 100-pound fine — about $145 — a  penalty that, if not paid by a deadline, can rise tenfold.

Before Ealing’s council voted for the zone, it queried residents about the activity outside the clinic. Responses were varied: Some worried about the harassment of clients, others that those clients weren’t given alternatives to abortion and still others that a buffer zone would stifle free expression of religious beliefs.

The council reported that most people who wrote to them said they had witnessed intimidation and supported the zone.

The British government is undertaking a review of protests outside abortion clinics by gathering evidence from law enforcement, health care providers and municipal councils to understand the scale and nature of these protests, as well as to hear from others such as rights groups worried about the free speech implications of the zones. It could then take action such as creating new police powers to protect those using or working in abortion clinics.

Although Britain has universal public health care, which includes abortion services, the majority of abortions in the U.K., especially early-term ones, are carried out by private clinics.

Marie Stopes International, named after a British sexual health pioneer, describes itself as the leading independent U.K. provider of sexual and reproductive health services. Its income in the last financial year was the equivalent of about $412 million.

About the author

Catherine Pepinster


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  • In the UK, health-care is completely covered by public spending…including women’s reproductive health and abortions (Northern Ireland an exception).

    No wonder the religious nuts hate it. Congratulations to the UK !! Exactly what we should have in the US too.

  • Hmmm. If people formed protest lines in front of evangelical churches with signs and calling out to people who enter the church, offering pamphlets on how their action is undermining democratic freedom and promotes racism – would that be against the law? Standing on public sidewalks, with protest signs, being sure not to block entry ways. I wonder if it is time for that.

  • I’ve herd of it happening. They were invited in to attend the service and left on friendly terms.

  • Or more likely, there is no pretending that free speech allows you to interfere in the lawful business of other people who don’t share your religious beliefs.

  • The UK jails people for youtube vidoes and social media postings. Communicating in the public square is not interference.

  • Excellent. Good for the Brits. Women seeking to end problem pregnancies should not have to fave harassment on entering clinics. Those who oppose having abortions are not obliged to have them. Neither the Bible not science supports the anti-choice position, only misogynism and disdain for women’e rights of conscience and religious liberty.

  • Wrong. Ask any politician whose gendarmes route protestors to out of the way free speech zones.

  • LOL! Not relevant to the topic or Ben’s statement.

    How did I guess it would be a reference to some kind of bigoted hate speech? 🙂

    I am sympathetic to free speech and it should not have criminal penalty in of itself. But I am unsympathetic to people who do stupid crap on social media as a matter of course. Any social/civil/employment related penalties he faced do not trouble me at all.

  • Only because there were pre-existing laws which forbade obstructing the entrance to the clinics. It was not so much unconstitutional as it was legislative overreach under the conditions.

  • It’s relevant because it illustrates the UK does not have free speech. Free speech necessarily encompasses speech that some might find hateful. I’m sympathetic to people who face government persecution for speech.

  • The court ruled the buffer zone was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.

  • OK. That was a ruling in which the 4 liberal justices were joined by CJ Roberts. It applies specifically to MA clinics and as such was “legislative overreach” as Spuddie said. My point was politicians allow themselves greater protection than clinic goers, which, given the assassinations of politicians, is understandable on their part but everyone should have the same protection from terrorism including clinic patients.

  • They found the potential was there. They didn’t actually strike down the law. They remanded it down to the lower courts.

  • It was reversed and remanded. Actions taken following remand are contingent on the issue. In the McCullen case the remand meant the charges against the plaintiffs were dismissed, it’s possible the lower court also gave them damages.

  • Meaning they did not rule specifically on the constitutionality of the law and left it to the lower court.

  • No, they ruled the Massachusetts law unconstitutionally violated the First Amendment. Go read the case.

  • They ruled it had the potential for overreach. But they could not determine it from an appeals POV.

  • It did not hold buffer zones to be unconstitutional on its face. It held those specific ones did not meet basic justification.

    Burson v. Freeman, 504 U. S. 191
    “the Court upheld a law establishing buffer zones outside polling places on the ground that less restrictive measures were inadequate.”

    “In short, given the vital First Amendment interests at stake, it is not enough for Massachusetts simply to say that other approaches have not worked.”