Police use draconian 'riot law' to break up pro-life vigil outside abortion clinic
Pro-life campaigners have been threatened with arrest under a draconian ‘riot law’ for holding prayer vigils outside an abortion clinic.
Police used legislation which is commonly used to disperse rioters and football hooligans to force three campaigners to move away from the clinic on two separate occasions over the past six weeks.
Officers issued the group, who try to persuade women to keep their unborn babies, with Section 14 Public Order Act notices.
The strongly worded notice, which was used on both occasions, read: ‘I believe the intention of the organisers is the intimidation of others with a view to compelling them not to do any act they have a right to do.’
The Scotland Yard inspectors said they thought the group posed a ‘serious risk of disruption to the life of the community’.
The group was then ordered by police to continue its vigil on the other side of the road, which meant protesters were unable to talk to any of the patients at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service clinic.
Staff at the BPAS clinic have called the police on several occasions to complain about the ‘intimidating behaviour’ of the campaigners. They say the Catholic group is harassing pregnant patients by showing them large photographs of embryos at various stages of pregnancy.
However the pro-life campaigners, from the Good Counsel Network (GCN), claim they are acting within the law and only speak to women who are willing to talk.
Last night the Metropolitan Police admitted its officers had made a mistake and said the ‘riot law’ should not have been used.
But Justyna Pasek, 33, a pregnancy adviser for GCN, said she felt like a criminal when her small team was stopped by the police.
‘We hand out leaflets to pregnant women and speak to women who want to speak to us,’ she said, adding: ‘We don’t chase after women, we don’t stop anyone from going into the clinic and we never block the gates.
‘We just pray all the time and hand out leaflets. But we were made to feel like criminals when the police forced us to move away from the clinic. The officers were very aggressive and I felt very harassed and mistreated by them.
‘I thought this was a free country, but this reminds me of the communist rule I used to live under when I was a little girl in Poland.’
Miss Pasek, who is originally from Wrocław in West Poland, and her colleagues have been holding daily vigils between 8am and 2pm outside the BPAS abortion clinic in Twickenham, West London, since September last year.
The GCN also campaigns at two other clinics in London, and was the first group founded in England to hold US-style demonstrations outside abortion clinics.
But the police have been called on various occasions after staff at the clinic, patients and local residents complained.
Clare McCullough, a director at GCN, said: ‘I think the clinic instigated a lot of these complaints.
‘They hate us being there because we see girls coming out and being sick on the pavement and we have seen girls being marched in by parents and boyfriends.
‘The girls sometimes tell us that they don’t want the abortions but they are being forced into them. The clinic just doesn’t like us seeing what they’re doing.’
However last night the pro-life group faced criticism over its tactics. A neighbour of the Twickenham clinic, who asked not to be named, said: ‘I find their behaviour deeply worrying. They are pestering women who are at a difficult time in their lives.
‘What these women need is support – not harassment. I’m pleased the police tried to intervene.’ And BPAS spokesman Clare Murphy said: ‘It is very disappointing that these protesters continue to stand outside clinics.
‘Women tell us that the protesters make them feel intimidated and upset on what is already a very difficult day for them.
‘These vigils are not about helping women, they are about stopping women’s access to abortion.’
She added: ‘BPAS respects the right to protest but asks that protesters respect the rights of women to access legal healthcare services free from harassment. We regularly receive calls from residents who are concerned about the vigils.
‘Everyone, whether they are clinic staff, local residents or pregnant women has the right to contact the police if they feel frightened or intimidated by strangers.’
And she went on to say: ‘Women take the decision to end a pregnancy extremely seriously, and most will talk it over with their partner, a relative or a close friend.
‘They do not want to discuss it with a line of ideologically motivated activists as they are entering a clinic.’
A Scotland Yard spokesman said: ‘We have acknowledged the concerns raised by those affected by our actions. Following a review of the decisions taken on those days, we now acknowledge that the implementation of Section 14 notices under the Public Order Act 1986 was incorrect.
‘The Metropolitan Police Service respects the right to lawful assembly and freedom of speech.
‘But we will take action, where it is appropriate to do so in accordance with legislation, so that we can protect the rights of others not to be intimidated.’