Conviction of abortion clinic protester ‘shows need for national guidance’
Campaigners have welcomed the conviction of a Christian preacher who protested in a protected space outside an abortion clinic, saying it shows why national guidance that is not “watered down” must be brought in to protect women.
Stephen Green (pictured) held a sign with a religious verse on it inside a zone covered by a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) in west London in February last year.
The PSPO, enacted by Ealing Council in April 2018 outside the MSI Reproductive Choices Clinic in Mattock Lane, was the first so-called buffer zone surrounding an abortion clinic to be introduced in the UK.
Green, 72 of Carmarthen, Dyfed in Wales, held what was described in court as a “large sign” containing the psalm text: “For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.”
He had pleaded not guilty to breaching the order and proclaimed his right to freedom of speech.
But he was convicted at Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court on Thursday, with District Judge Kathryn Verghis saying he had “pointedly and intentionally” included the words “in my mother’s womb” as “an act of protest”.
She said those particular words, being displayed as they were in that zone outside an abortion clinic “amount to an expression of disapproval as envisaged by the order”.
She noted that his protest had been peaceful but said she attached “great weight” to the fact it was possible for him to protest in an area other than that covered by the order.
The court heard that clinic staff had to be diverted from their work to deal with the protest and that local residents had challenged Green, but that there was no evidence of any clinic patients suffering as a result on the day.
Green, whose lawyer indicated to the court that he intends to appeal against his conviction, was given a conditional discharge for 12 months and ordered to pay £2,426 in costs and surcharge.
Louise McCudden, UK head of external affairs at MSI Reproductive Choices, said: “People are fed up with seeing behaviour like Stephen Green’s in their communities, which is why Parliament voted to protect clinics across England and Wales.”
She said the verdict “shows why the national legislation must be implemented urgently in full, not watered down, so that no matter where in the country you live, you can access abortion care safe from harassment”.
She added: “We look forward to constructive engagement with the Home Office on their implementation and the ending of the current postcode lottery of protection around clinics.”
The conviction comes a day after Home Secretary James Cleverly said his department is listening “very carefully” to responses to a consultation on draft non-statutory guidance to support the introduction of Safe Access Zones around abortion clinics.
The Government has said the guidance is designed to ensure abortion service providers and everyone within Safe Access Zones are clear as to what is expected under the Public Order Act 2023.
The legislation, covering England and Wales, contains powers to make it an offence to interfere with, intimidate or harass women accessing, or people providing, abortion services.
Campaigners had long made the case for the need for national legislation, arguing that PSPOs depend on local councils’ willingness, are timebound, can be expensive and result in a postcode lottery.
In Parliament last year, MPs voted against attempts to allow “silent prayer” outside clinics under the new law.
But there has been concern recently among pro-choice campaigners about the details of the draft guidance to support the legislation, with some claiming it did not reflect the debate in Parliament.
The proposed draft guidance states that prayer itself within the zone “should not automatically be seen as unlawful”, but added that “where an individual is praying, but their conduct is also intrusive, this is likely to be an offence.”.
The guidance also states that informing, discussing or offering help does not necessarily amount to “influence” under the Act.
It says for an offence to be committed, the activity must be “capable of influencing, obstructing or causing alarm, harassment or distress” to someone who is also within any part of a clinic or hospital or any public open space within 150 metres of an abortion clinic or hospital.
Mr Cleverly insisted the guidance that had gone out for consultation was a draft, rather than a final version.
He told the Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday that while he did not want to speculate, the final guidance “will be based on the feedback that we’ve had from the consultation” and added that the department was “very conscious to make sure that the expressed will of Parliament is reflected in the ultimate guidance that is put out.”
He said the department is “listening very, very carefully” to the consultation responses as well the conversations which were had as the Bill was passed.
Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2024, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Joseph Draoer / PA.