Pregnant women have been left so distressed by pro-life protesters that they have refused to leave abortion clinics even during a fire alarm, MPs were told.
Women who attend clinics have been filmed or photographed, called “mum” and physically blocked by vocal anti-abortion campaigners in a bid to stop them from terminating a pregnancy.
A committee of politicians heard evidence from managers of abortion clinics on Tuesday as the Government considers creating buffer zones to ban protesters from loitering near clinic gates.
It comes after Southwark council became the third local authority in the UK moved to set up a no-go area to force protest groups to stand further away from clinic entrances.
In the cross-party meeting of the Home Affairs Committee, clinical operations manager of Ealing’s Marie Stopes abortion clinic, John Hansen-Brevetti, said there are often groups of up to 40 protesters outside his west London clinic.
Women are often so distressed by the protesters – which have stood outside the building for up to 40 hours a week for 20 years – that they have asked to be escorted out.
Police were called several times on some days but appeared unable to act because harassment laws apply to individuals who repeatedly approach the victim, Mr Hansen-Brevetti said. The patients involved, meanwhile, probably attend centres on only one or two occasions.
"There is a culture that abortion clinics can be targeted and it is allowed for this type of attack to take place," he told the committee. "There's been an impunity that has been allowed to snowball."
He said buffer zones would “dramatically better the lives” or patients who come to the clinic.
Clare Murphy, from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, told the committee that women's experience of being confronted by protesters had "profoundly awful consequences".
In some cases the vigils have led to women having late terminations, purchasing abortion pills from the internet or opting for the "clinically sub-optimal" process of taking all their medication in one appointment in order to avoid a second visit.
MPs, chaired by Labour’s Yvette Cooper, also heard from representatives of the anti-abortion movement who denied they were intimidating pregnant women.
The director of the Good Counsel Network, Clare McCullough, said their group's members do no more than pray and hand leaflets to women going into the Ealing clinic.
She dismissed Marie Stopes' record of incidents as "sketchy and vague", adding: "There is no evidence of it because it is not happening. If these things were happening, we would be in prison."
Ms McCullough also said buffer zones would result in women having abortions they do not really want, suggesting protesters “help” women.
Antonia Tully of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child called the protesters “pavement counsellors”.
MP Ms Cooper said it appeared only help from the authorities would protect women from “distressing” harassment after offering the campaigners a voluntary arrangement to hold vigils further away from clinics.
Pro-life protester responded: "Looking at the hundreds of women each year who have our help, I am not seeing any way that I am going to move away from the nearest opportunity to give the woman a leaflet as she is going in the door."
Ms Tully added: "We wouldn't voluntarily take any action that would inhibit us from saving the lives of unborn children."
Ms Cooper responded: "We have heard a very clear explanation that if there is no further action taken by councils or the police or the Government, then the kinds of activities that some women clearly do find distressing and harassing will continue and there is going to be no attempt voluntarily to prevent that kind of behaviour."
Conservative MP Will Quince, who said he and his wife had to consider abortion of their son, who was later stillborn, told the protesters he had no doubt their actions were "hugely intimidatory and harassing and distressing".