On Sunday October 30, bells will ring and pro-lifers will stand in silence for the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act. In anticipation of that terrible landmark, the former prisons minister Ann Widdecombe has said of that last half-century: “Gradually, the nation’s conscience has been deadened.”
Whatever the state of the national conscience, there is certainly a strange extremism about the pro-choice movement of 2017. Not content with some of Europe’s most liberal abortion laws, politicians, campaigners and professional abortionists are uniting behind the “We Trust Women” campaign, aiming to decriminalise abortion. Two years ago, MPs voted against making sex-selective abortions criminal; in March, peers in the Lords shut down a bill to save disabled babies from being aborted up to birth.
In this atmosphere, it’s not surprising that pro-life vigils – the groups who silently pray outside abortion clinics, or offer help to the women on their way in – are being targeted. And this week, in west London, pro-choicers gained a significant victory.
The pavement outside the Marie Stopes clinic on Mattock Lane in Ealing has for some time hosted two groups: one from the Good Counsel Network (GCN), a pro-life charity which will be familiar to many readers, the other a pro-choice group called Sister Supporter.
A Labour councillor, Binda Rai, proposed a motion to ban GCN. The motion was passed, though pro-lifers who were present say they hardly had a chance to speak.
It appears, however, that this move – regardless of whether it was actually co-ordinated – is seen as having larger implications. The council vote was “groundbreaking”, said the managing director of Marie Stopes; Rai said there could be “national implications”.
The barrister Neil Addison told the Catholic Herald: “I suspect this is the start of a political campaign to get nationwide exclusion zones around abortion clinics.”
The trouble is, Addison says, that so many allegations about pro-life vigils go unquestioned in the media.
Last year a Channel 4 documentary went undercover in the pro-life movement, but found nothing especially scandalous. The message was nevertheless that these were dangerous, intimidating demonstrations.
“It seems clear,” says Addison, “that Marie Stopes and BPAS see the Ealing decision as a test case. If they can get the ban in Ealing then they will apply for similar bans elsewhere and that will strengthen the arguments for nationwide bans. Therefore fighting this ban is very important.”
A key figure is the Labour MP Rupa Huq, who appears to be leading the campaign within the Commons. On Monday she asked home secretary Amber Rudd whether the government would provide guidance on preventing pro-life vigils.
Rudd replied that she agreed women should have access to abortion, and that she was interested to see whether there was evidence of “intimidation” by pro-lifers.
That evidence, says the Good Counsel Network, is non-existent. “We’re not there to protest,” Clare McCullough of GCN told the BBC’s Daily Politics last week. “The actual approach to a woman is offering one leaflet to a woman going in which lists help and support that she can claim during the pregnancy.”
McCullough says that hundreds of women have accepted that help, once they have discovered that they had an alternative to abortion. (Good Counsel Network provides support, including housing, to women in vulnerable situations.)
She also pointed out that Marie Stopes film their vigils. “There must be thousands of hours of footage of this ‘intimidation’. Put it all on the table.”
The pro-choice campaign may have the parliamentary momentum, but it is not clear how they will proceed. Rai says the council could use a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), a versatile and much-criticised form of control order which has been used to ban dog-walking without leads or noisy cars in certain areas. Addison says there will have to be a consultation before a PSPO can be introduced. “We will just have to see how thorough any such consultation is.”
The paradox of the pro-choice campaign is that it wants to uphold the belief that abortion is no more morally complex than the removal of an appendix, but also suggests that the vigils by their nature cause great emotional distress. That paradox is unlikely to be explored in Ealing council’s consultation.