Pro-life protesters could be banned from demonstrating outside an abortion clinic in Twickenham, to keep them from harassing women and staff.

Councillors at an October 16 Richmond Council meeting voted unanimously for opening a consultation on introducing a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) for the area around the clinic in Rosslyn Road - after hearing evidence of anti-social behaviour by the protesters.

Breaching a PSPO is a criminal offence, and those breaking the rules could be fined.

If introduced, it could be the second such order following Ealing Council's decision to introduce a similar order at the Marie Stopes clinic in the borough earlier this year. At least a further eight councils are already investigating similar bans.

But activists told the meeting that they do not harass people, but simply hand out leaflets and pray quietly, and argued the ban would curtail their right to free speech.

Rachael Clarke, a public affairs and advocacy manager at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service - which runs the clinic - read out notes recorded by staff of the consequences of the protests.

Women reported feeling "scared, upset and ashamed" after being confronted by protesters or seeing their posters and leaflets.

One woman, who had been grabbed by anti-abortion campaigners elsewhere, felt so uncomfortable she had to be escorted into the clinic by a member of staff.

There have been protests outside the Rosslyn Road clinic on and off for more than 10 years, but they have increased in frequency and size since September 2013, and now happen daily - often with multiple protesters, up to a dozen on Fridays and Saturdays, at least one of whom is alleged to be paid.

Activists from the Good Counsel Network, the organisation behind most of the protests - usually known as vigils - spoke at the meeting, saying their actions were calm and did not cause harassment, and denied following, shouting at and filming women going into the centre.

A woman spoke powerfully about how she had become destitute and homeless in 2017, and had made an appointment at Rosslyn Road because she thought abortion was her only option; she would have been kicked out of where she was staying if people found out about her pregnancy.

High Court challenge being filed against buffer zone outside Marie Stopes abortion clinic in Ealing

She was given a leaflet by someone from the Good Counsel Network, and was later given financial support and accommodation, so she was able to have the baby.

She said: "If the pro-lifers' vigil were to be moved away from BPAS it would mean that women in my situation will be left with no alternative to abortion.

"Women like me will never experience the joy of choosing to have their baby. Women like me will be left with regrets, guilt and only a wish that if only there was an alternative solution they would’ve done things differently."

A Good Counsel Network representative defended the claim on one of their leaflets that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer - a claim not endorsed by the World Health Organisation, saying women had the right to know about the studies, and claiming it was their "freedom of speech".

Other speakers also raised the threat of legal action, which could be costly for the council to fight, should the PSPO be put in place.

Ealing Council has gone through a similar legal process, with their decision to create a 100-metre "buffer zone" around the Marie Stopes clinic being challenged, but upheld, at the high court.

But Councillor Geoffrey Samuel said the council "must not be stopped from doing what is right because it could cost money", and fully endorsed going ahead with the consultation.

Councillors and the public were reminded throughout that the decision was not a moral judgement on the issue of abortion itself, but it was about anti-social behaviour.

Cllr Liz Jaeger, cabinet member for community safety said: "Residents have, for several years, expressed concerns in relation to protests being held outside the BPAS Clinic in Rosslyn Road which we have been told have caused distress and intimidation.

"We have worked to identify the options open to the Council to deal with these issues of anti-social behaviour, which are having a detrimental impact on local residents, patients and staff of the clinic as well as people attending the local GP surgery and school.

"The proposed PSPO would not ban anyone from protesting or hosting a vigil, but would prevent such protests or vigils taking place near the clinic."

The consultation will be launched on Monday, October 29.