Campaigners have asked the High Court to label a council’s ban on demonstrations outside an abortion clinic as “unlawful, invalid and unjustified”.
Ealing Council was the first in the country to create a 100-metre protest-free “buffer zone” outside a Marie Stopes clinic in the west London borough.
Lawyers for Alina Dulgheriu, of the Be Here For Me campaign, say the authority did not have the power to make the public spaces protection order (PSPO), which came into force in April after reports of “intimidation, harassment and distress” for women using the facility on Mattock Lane.
Clinical operations manager John Hansen-Brevetti said women had been told that the ghost of their foetus would haunt them, had been told “mummy, mummy, don’t kill me”, had holy water thrown on them and rosary beads thrust at them.
Ms Dulgheriu, 34, said she was offered financial, practical and moral help, as well as accommodation, and now had a “beautiful” six-year-old daughter.
On Thursday, counsel Alasdair Henderson told Mr Justice Turner that the group’s case was not about the “morality or legality” of abortion, or whether women considering an abortion should be protected from harassment or intimidation.
Both sides agreed this was wrong and should be prevented.
“Not only do they condemn active harassment or intimidation – and they emphatically deny they have done anything approaching it – such behaviour would be entirely counter-productive to what they want to do,” he said.
“Obviously they are pro-life, but their sole means of achieving that is to offer help and support to women considering abortion.”
He argued that the court should declare the PSPO unlawful, invalid and an unjustified interference with the group’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
If it was upheld, it had wide ramifications for freedom of expression and assembly and set a dangerous precedent, he added.
It was an “inappropriate tool” to tackle the issue and “inherently disproportionate” in the circumstances of a “peaceful and lawful vigil”.
Kuljit Bhogal, counsel for Ealing, said the authority had to balance the group’s rights with those of the service users, clinic staff and others in the locality upon whom the activities were having a detrimental effect.
“In what has been a delicate balancing exercise, the council has facilitated the activities of the pro-life and pro-choice groups by providing a designated zone where they can continue their activities,” the lawyer said.
The group was able to continue to offer support, pray and offer leaflets and, importantly, there was no restriction on service users approaching them in the designated zone.
What the group could no longer do was interfere with a woman’s entry or exit to the clinic.
The PSPO allowed the group to continue their work with little or no impact on them save for a different location.
This was in stark contrast to the impact on others were the PSPO to be suspended.
The judge reserved his decision to a later date but did not indicate when he would give his ruling.