Why the fight to end harassment outside abortion clinics has only just begun, argues Eve Veglio-White on behalf of Sister Supporter
Abortion has been legal in Britain for 50 years. For 23 of those years my local abortion clinic, Marie Stopes Ealing, has been targeted six days a week, 52 weeks a year, by various pro-life groups. There is now a wealth of evidence – including videos, images and hundreds of statements – that shows that people are harassed at the very point of access. We have seen, and read, harrowing accounts of women being told to ‘pray so you don’t end up back here’, called ‘murderer’ and told to ‘change your lifestyle’. Perhaps even more disturbing are the people (often men) calling women ‘Mum’ when they enter and, even more cruelly, when they leave. People have been blocked from the entrance, followed to their cars, and sometimes have to pass large numbers of ‘vigilers’ and ‘pavement counsellors’ holding signs saying: ‘Give your baby a present, a birthday’ or ‘Thou shall not kill’. Then there is the even more insidious behaviour, that is often deemed ‘peaceful’ – such as groups praying directly opposite the main entrance or the handing out of gendered pink/blue rosaries and leaflets. Leaflets that include ‘warnings’ such as you could get breast cancer, an eating disorder, or even alcoholism if you go ahead with the termination – all after they’ve begged you ‘Mum please do not to do anything today that could harm your child’.
As I write this piece, the Isle of Man has just approved Safe Zones as a part of the Abortion Reform Bill. I sincerely hope this bill passes, but I also hope that this is an indication to the UK government that Safe Zones and protection of clinic users should be written in as an integral part of abortion law. If a population of just over 80,000 can recognise this, so should we. Current harassment law is just not fit for purpose. The onus is placed on the individual to bring about a harassment claim against another individual. This is not going to be a clinic user’s priority on the day of a procedure, and even more importantly, why should it be? To add the responsibility, not to mention the laborious process of bringing about criminal proceedings is, in our opinion, inhumane and a gross governmental oversight.
In 2015, we formed a local group known as Sister Supporter and it’s taken us three years of tireless campaigning and weekly ‘counter vigils’ to secure the UK’s first ever ‘Buffer’ or Safe Zone. We explored every method available to us, and overcame many hurdles. A turning point came when we met an incredible legal aid lawyer, who suggested that while we work towards national legislation, we should look at what can be done on a local level using laws that already exist. She suggested a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) which gives local authorities the power to restrict or ban certain ‘anti-social’ activities within a specific area. Once of the strengths of our campaign was our engagement with the local community, who were just as angry as us, and so we started a month-long council petition that needed 1,500 signatures in order to be debated. The petition closed with over 3,500 signatures, and overwhelming local support.
While this is an amazing reminder that a group of passionate people coming together can truly affect change, I often wonder why it took a group of angry residents to make change happen? Where are the police in all of this? Where is the government? I have been in Parliament, as ex-chancellor Phillip Hammond said it’s a policing issue, I’ve listened to the police say, we can’t do anything - this is a government issue, and then I sat in Ealing Town Hall as the councillors unanimously voted to bring in a Safe Zone around the clinic. Clearly there’s something amiss here. The public opinion is in favour of Safe Zones; over 89% of Ealing residents were in favour and 69% of UK residents who answered the Home Office consultation were also in favour.
The Council decided to implement a Safe Zone after every attempt to find a middle ground has been unsuccessful as the pro-life lobby has repeatedly denied any harassment occurs at all. They have also made it clear that they will not voluntarily stand away from the entrance, otherwise they cannot target every individual using the clinic. At the Home Office Select Committee evidence hearing, the Chair, Yvette Cooper MP, told the Good Counsel Network that she was deeply concerned about their complete refusal to accept that anyone has ever felt harassed, and was therefore implying every statement given by a clinic user, was fabricated. It’s a ludicrous claim from the anti-abortion lobby that we are opposed to people in crisis being offered help, it’s the methods and the agenda that we oppose. We are not trying to restrict anybody’s right to freedom of speech, we just don’t believe that a clinic is the place for debate.
We’re now taking our campaign outside Ealing to the rest of the country, where we are aware of at least 42 UK clinics that are affected by this behaviour. There are a number of councils who are in the process of looking at or taking similar action. Our plan is to work with local governments to put in place Safe Zones and show the government that a national solution is desperately needed. The more councils taking action, the more they can’t ignore the problem. We are working with several groups around the country and we urge you to find out what’s happening in your area. Are there any existing groups? Can you start a group? What is the local council/MP doing? Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us, and let’s end this imbalance of rights together.