Christian soldiers

RARELY are council decisions met with applause and yelps of joy. But that was the case on April 10th when Ealing, a west London borough, unanimously voted to introduce the first buffer zone around an abortion clinic in Britain, banning pro-life groups from holding protests or vigils within 100 metres. Pro-choice activists in pink high-visibility jackets chanted and hip-hoorayed outside the town hall, while pro-lifers sang hymns and prayed.

Stand-offs outside abortion clinics are not unique to Ealing. Back Off, a pro-choice charity, has documented demonstrations outside 42 clinics and hospitals across Britain in the past year. Ten other councils are considering taking similar legal action, which may be easier now that Ealing has set a precedent.

Most of the demonstrations are organised by a handful of Christian groups, each with different tactics. Some hold peaceful vigils, light candles and pray. Others try to convince women to think again, handing them leaflets. Such activities have been going on for decades, but in recent years they have become more aggressive, says Rachael Clarke of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, an abortion provider which runs 70 clinics.

Some tactics are imported from America. Two new groups with links to American organisations, Abort67 and 40 Days For Life, have entered the fray. Ms Clarke says the two groups have respectively filmed clinic users and followed women down the street (they deny this). Even those with a gentler approach look across the pond. Clare McCullough of the Good Counsel Network, a British pro-life charity, says in-house training for those in her organisation is inspired by peaceful protests in America.

The same is true of the other side. Outside Ealing’s council meeting, members of Sister Supporter, a local group which sprang up in opposition to the protests, sported pink jackets that had been sent free of charge by the Clinic Vest Project, an Illinois-based charity that supports pro-choice organisations.

America also offers a glimpse of how buffer zones work in practice. A number of states and cities have set them up. In those places protests still take place, but the greater distance between demonstrators and the clinic entrance diffuses tension and makes the experience less threatening for patients, says David Cohen, a professor of law at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Some clinics draw physical lines on the pavement to ensure that protesters keep their distance. Police are called now and then, but a constant presence is not needed.

Pro-choice activists hope that Ealing’s approach becomes a national one. In January the Home Office announced a consultation on how to deal with alleged intimidation outside clinics. Meanwhile, pro-life groups are considering legal challenges and other ways to contact pregnant women. As Ms McCullough puts it, “We are not just going to go away.”