News Analysis

‘Censorship zones prevent real choice’: the battle over pro-life vigils

Alina Dulgheriu

A London council faces a High Court challenge over its ‘buffer zone’ ruling

When Richmond Council became the second local authority to impose a “buffer zone” around an abortion clinic, it set aside £100,000 of taxpayers’ money in anticipation of a legal challenge to its decision.

That challenge came last week when Justyna Pacek, a Polish-born pro-life counsellor with the Good Counsel Network, filed a case against the council at the High Court.

She alleged that the Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) enforced from April 1 to prevent alleged harassment of clients and staff of a British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) clinic in Twickenham was so broad that it prevented a range of charitable activities. They included, she said, counselling, prayer and the distribution of leaflets outlining the practical assistance available to women who do not want to abort but feel they have little choice.

The council has argued that the PSPO was necessary to protect “the human rights of the patients and staff of the BPAS clinic to use the services and go to work without fear and in privacy”.

Yet the PSPO was approved in the absence of any compelling evidence that harassment had occurred outside of the clinic, with not a single person prosecuted.

Also, lawyers such as Neil Addison, a former Crown prosecutor, have argued that many legal options already exist to deal with harassment should any occur.

Neither is the Government convinced of the case for the buffer zones. Amber Rudd, when Home Secretary, said she could see no evidence of harassment and her view was upheld by Sajid Javid when he announced in September that there would be no national buffer zones policy.

Unsurprisingly, many people are sympathetic to Pacek and a GoFundMe page set up to pay for her legal challenge raised £10,000 in just a week.

She said: “I understand what is at stake in Richmond because I have stood outside that abortion clinic many times and offered women alternatives to abortion.

“I have met hundreds of women who just needed a little help, at the right time and in the right place, in order to keep the child that they desperately wanted. The women in these situations are often very scared and vulnerable. Many of these women are being coerced into abortion and others just want the choice of exploring other options.

“The women I helped often told me they could not get the help they need in the abortion clinic, only abortion. Outside the clinic, however, the kind of help that is offered can really transform the situations these women find themselves in.

“Volunteers can provide financial help, counselling, help with accommodation and baby clothes. This practical and emotional support is often indispensable and life-changing to these women and many women credit this with saving their child’s life.”

She added: “I cannot stand back and allow Richmond Council to introduce a draconian censorship zone that prevents real choice for women. I will challenge the PSPO in Richmond for mothers who need help in the future, at the place they need it most.”

The policy comes less than a year after Ealing Council, also a London local authority, used a PSPO to prevent pro-life activists from approaching people or praying within 100m (328ft) of a Marie Stopes clinic.

The Richmond buffer zone is almost identical to that of the Ealing order, which is due to be challenged legally in the Court of Appeal on July 16.

Alina Dulgheriu (pictured), a Romanian former nanny behind the Ealing challenge, lost her initial case at High Court when Mr Justice Turner decided that the buffer zone was a “necessary step in a democratic society”.

Yet Dulgheriu also saw her case through the prism of democracy while arriving at very different conclusions. She insisted that the buffer zone infringes human rights laws guaranteeing freedom of association, expression and freedom of religion, as well as stopping people offering help to women who feel abandoned.

She felt so strongly because she herself benefited from pro-life counsellors when in 2011 she discovered she was pregnant shortly after she split up from her boyfriend, who then put her under pressure to abort.

She booked herself into a Marie Stopes clinic but changed her mind when approached by a counsellor who also found a new home for her when she was sacked from her job because she was pregnant.

Her experience of abandonment is common. Another woman, who did not wish to be named, was helped after she was bullied into an abortion at the Ealing clinic by her boyfriend and her parents but at the last minute decided not to go through with the procedure. She escaped the clinic and family by scaling an 8ft perimeter fence with the aid of a workman and turned to the counsellors who placed her in the care of a doctor. She is now the mother of a healthy five-year-old daughter.

“I really didn’t want to see the pavement counsellors because I thought they would shout abuse at me and tell me I was going to hell, and I felt guilty enough about going in there,” she said. “In fact there was none of that. They were just supportive and empathised with women’s situations.”

Why is that now a crime in Richmond and Ealing?