Abortion clinic ‘buffer zone’ infringes right to protest, say campaigners

Campaigners involved in a “peaceful and lawful vigil” have told Court of Appeal judges that a 100-metre “buffer zone” outside an abortion clinic infringes their right to protest.

Ealing Council in west London became the first in the country to create a protest-free zone outside a Marie Stopes clinic in April 2018 following demonstrations.

The council imposed a public spaces protection order (PSPO) following reports of “intimidation, harassment and distress” for women using the facility in Mattock Lane.

Alina Dulgheriu, 35, and Andrea Orthova, who regularly attend a vigil run by the Good Counsel Network (GCN), are trying to overturn the ban on protests directly outside the clinic.

At a hearing in London on Tuesday, their lawyers argued the ban interferes with their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief and freedom of assembly and association.

They also said the council was wrong to use a PSPO because the orders were designed to protect local residents from anti-social behaviour, and clinic users were “one-off or occasional” visitors to the area.

Philip Havers QC, for the two women, told the court the PSPO “criminalises acts of prayer” and said it was the “first time since the reign of Elizabeth I that public prayer has been subject to potential criminal sanction”.

Outlining the background to the case, he said GCN has operated vigils outside the centre for a number of years and has done so daily since 2013, usually with one counsellor near the gate and “one or two people praying nearby”.

In written submissions, he said: “The counsellor near the gate offers leaflets to centre users and occasionally asks them if they need any support.

“Women are free to decline the leaflet and pass by without further interaction.

“The leaflets principally outline the support that can be provided by GCN to women considering an abortion.

“They also highlight some of the complications that can arise from the procedure and include pen diagrams of foetuses in different stages of development.

“There is a further leaflet intended for women who may have had an abortion. This offers support and counselling.”

Mr Havers said many of the allegations made against protesters in evidence gathered by the council during a consultation exercise were “strongly disputed” by the women, GCN and other anti-abortion groups.

He added: “In addition, GCN provided evidence to the (council) demonstrating that its counsellors had assisted over 3,000 women in its history.

“These women included Ms Dulgheriu. Several other women also testified that they had decided not to have abortions as a direct result of GCN’s presence outside the clinic and, further, that they would not have known about the help being offered had they not been approached by counsellors.”

Ms Dulgheriu says she was offered financial, practical and moral help, as well as accommodation, and now has a “beautiful” daughter.

Supporters from campaign group Be Here For Me, including three women who were approached by activists on their way to abortion clinics, held a rally outside court shortly after the hearing started.

Lawyers representing Ealing Council argue the buffer zone should remain and said some users of the clinic who had abortions many years ago are still “significantly affected by their encounters with the activists”.

Ranjit Bhose QC said the council had received a petition signed by more than 3,500 people urging it to take action.

He also said that more than 1,000 people who responded to the council’s consultation provided specific comments about witnessing activists approaching clinic users and “perceiving this behaviour to be clearly intimidating, harassing or shaming” to those users.

In written submissions, Mr Bhose said: “The consultation report also included direct quotations from a number of residents about the effect of passing activists with their own young children and being confronted by graphic images of foetuses laid out upon the grass verges.

“There was, on any account, a very substantial body of evidence before the (council) decision-maker, which included compelling statements from service users, local residents and those frequenting the area, which delved into detail on the impugned activities and their detrimental effect.”

The barrister said these included allegations that women going to the clinic had been called “mum” and had pink or blue rosary beads handed to them.

There were also reports of signs and images which caused distress, including images of “developing and aborted foetuses” and signs which read “thou shall not kill” or “abortion kills babies”.

Human rights organisation Liberty, which is intervening in the case, says it “stands firmly behind rights of access to abortion services” and does not endorse or agree with the anti-abortion stance of the two women.

However, its lawyers argue the “right to peaceful protest” must be protected and say the organisation is concerned “at the over-broad nature” of the PSPO.

Dismissing a High Court challenge against the PSPO brought by the two women in July 2018, Mr Justice Turner said: “There was substantial evidence that a very considerable number of users of the clinic reasonably felt that their privacy was being very seriously invaded at a time and place when they were most vulnerable and sensitive to uninvited attention.

“It also follows that, in this regard, I am also satisfied that the defendant (council) was entitled to conclude that the effect of the activities of the protesters was likely to make such activities unreasonable and justified the restrictions imposed.”

The judge said his ruling did not give the “green light” to local authorities to impose PSPOs around all abortion clinics and each case must be decided on its own facts.

The appeal, before Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherton and two other senior judges, is due to last two days and the judges are expected to reserve their ruling.

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