The Supreme Court last week declined to hear an appeal against the imposition of the first “buffer zone” around an abortion clinic in Britain.
The 100m (330ft) exclusion zone around the Marie Stopes clinic in west London was approved by Ealing Council in April 2018, ostensibly to prevent harassment of clients and staff.
The pro-life activists it sought to silence argued unsuccessfully that there was no evidence of such behaviour taking place, and that the police were equipped with the power to stop it if it had.
The subsequent Public Spaces Protection Order prohibits all pro-life activity inside the zone, including peaceful assembly, distribution of leaflets, counselling – and prayer, even when it is silent.
The order was challenged at the High Court by Alina Dulgheriu, a Romanian woman who says she was once put under pressure to abort both by an ex-boyfriend and her employers, who reportedly sacked her from her job as a live-in nanny when they discovered she was pregnant.
She had felt she had no option but to book herself into a Marie Stopes clinic, but decided not to abort after she was offered help by pro-life counsellors. She is now the mother of a seven-year-old daughter.
The High Court rejected her case and last August the Court of Appeal upheld its judgment. So Miss Dulgheriu appealed to the Supreme Court, the highest in the country. She has now learned that it will not hear the case, leaving her “devastated”.
“My little girl is here today because of the practical and emotional support that I was offered outside a Marie Stopes centre, and I brought the appeal to ensure that other women did not have this vital support option removed,” she said. “It is unthinkable that any council would criminalise an offer of help to a woman who might want to keep her child.
“Ealing Council could have taken action in a way that would have safeguarded the essential help offered at the gate. Instead, they made charity a criminal offence and removed dedicated and caring individuals from public space without justification.”
She and her legal team, she said, are “considering all options, including an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg”, to which British courts remain subject under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Elizabeth Howard of Be Here For Me, a pro-life group supporting Miss Dulgheriu, said the rejection of the case represented “a very sad day for vulnerable women”.
“In five years of the pro-life vigil’s work in Ealing, hundreds of women have accepted an offer of help and chosen to keep their baby rather than have an abortion. These women have tried again and again to have their voices heard, but they are ignored,” she said.
“It is disgraceful that in both court judgments there is literally not a single sentence, not a single word, dedicated to the women who have been helped by the vigil, who are grateful for the vigil, and who have given the other side of the story.”
Emboldened abortion providers have demanded that the Government impose buffer zones at all clinics, with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service declaring the witness of pro-life activists a “national problem which requires a national solution”.
Yet it could be argued that such a policy, either local or national, is not only an infringement on the freedom of people to practise true charity, but also represents an act of censorship of the rights of free speech and expression of those who publicly disagree with abortion.
This is not just the view of the pro-life movement but pretty much the expressed view of such groups as Liberty, the Manifesto Club, Big Brother Watch, Index on Censorship, the Freedom Association and Peter Tatchell, the gay rights activist and human rights campaigner. They sense that a policy to prevent peaceful assembly sets a deeply chilling precedent in a supposedly free society.
It is a disturbing sign of the times that the courts appear oblivious to the dangers, and that the Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties have embraced such a blinkered view as part of a wider push to decriminalise abortion.
It is all the more disturbing when the case for exclusion zones does not rest on the facts. For a fleeting moment, the truth clawed its way to the surface during the 2018 Home Office review of the case for a national policy. Sajid Javid, then Home Secretary, concluded a national policy would not be proportionate in the light of the “passive” nature of activities outside abortion clinics, as well as the existing powers of local councils and the police.
Yet in March 2019, the London Borough of Richmond became the second local authority to introduce an exclusion zone around an abortion clinic. It is now facing a legal challenge from Justyna Pasek, who for five years has counselled women outside the BPAS clinic in Twickenham, south-west London.
Miss Pasek deserves a fair hearing, given that her case hinges on vital questions of life, freedom, justice and truth. It is a tragedy that she might not receive one.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.