(CN) – Christian protesters who for years have been telling visitors of a London abortion clinic that they’re going to hell have lost their legal challenge to a clinic buffer zone.
Enacted in April 2018 by the borough of Ealing, the public spaces protection order creates a protest-free bubble that extends 100 meters, about 330 feet, around the Marie Stopes clinic in West London.
As noted in the ruling, made available on Thursday by the High Court of Appeal, the anti-abortion protesters are all members of a group called the Good Counsel Network. They offered no denial to evidence that, for years, they have been taking photos of people who use the clinic, telling them that they will go to hell, displaying lifelike fetus dolls, handing out rosary beads and referring to would-be patients as “Mum.”
The group wasted little time in suing to quash the order and appealed when a judge threw out their case. Hinging their claim on language in the protection order that purports to cover “those in the locality,” the protesters argued that patients do not qualify since they may only visit Ealing once to undergo a procedure.
The three-judge appeals court disagreed.
“We conclude that Ealing was correct to interpret the expression ‘those in the locality’ in section 52(2)(a) as capable of embracing occasional visitors, and were entitled to decide on the facts that the women, their family members and supporters visiting the center, in addition to staff and local residents, fell within that section,” the ruling states.
Ealing conducted an online survey before issuing its protection order, and those results are quoted extensively in the ruling.
“It is extremely stressful living opposite these protests,” one resident stated in a report collected by the clinic. “It is a regular occurrence seeing protestors standing in the way of clinic users grabbing their arms and shouting at them. … Do I confront the crying women on the street, or do they prefer privacy? Local residents should be able to live a peaceful life and should not have the weight of such things on their shoulders on a daily basis.”
Another passerby called the pictures displayed by the protesters “truly awful.”
“I walk past the local clinic with my children and they have images of dead fetuses on show,” the report continued. “They create an awful environment for local residents.”
The ruling also cites evidence of patients canceling their appointments, based on invasion of privacy and fear of physical harm.
Arguing for the protesters, attorney Philip Havers told the court that protesters who wished to avoid engagement could choose a less exposed clinic.
That argument was quickly unraveled by the appellate panel.
“The decision of a woman whether or not to have an abortion is an intensely personal and sensitive matter,” they wrote, noting that Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights covers a clinic visitor’s right to a private life.
Ealing’s attorney Ranjit Bhose meanwhile emphasized the vulnerability of those who enter the clinic, including women in the early stages of pregnancy, children and victims of rape.
“Some are carrying fetuses with abnormalities, even fatal abnormalities,” he argued, as paraphrased in the ruling. “Some may not have told friends or family. Their very attendance at the centre is a statement about highly personal and intimate matters. They may be in physical pain and suffering acute psychological and emotional issues both when attending and leaving the center. There is no alternative way of arriving at and leaving the center except across a public space, which they would naturally wish to cross as inconspicuously as possible.”
Other evidence quoted in the ruling found that some clinic visitors suffered long-term emotional damage because they were not given a well-established safe zone.
A 2018 decision from the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is quoted in the ruling as well. “For many women, becoming pregnant is an expression of their autonomy, the fulfillment of a deep-felt-desire,” Lady Hale wrote in the case. “But for those women who become pregnant, or are obligated to carry a pregnancy to term, against their will there can be few greater invasions of their autonomy and bodily integrity.”