Ealing Council made the move to ban pro-life protesters from standing outside its Marie Stopes abortion clinic. It claims the new ruling aims to protect women from the distress and intimidation many experience at the West London clinic, and is backed by the likes of Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn. Now, anyone arriving at the clinic who is intent on picketing must stand at least 100 meters away from the doors of the building.
The vote took place after the council received more than 3,500 responses to the subject during a public consultation last year which, according to Labour councillor Binda Rai, is the single biggest response ever to a consultation in the area. Following the vote, council leader Julian Bell said he felt they’d done the right thing: “I believe this is something that’s long been needed, so it feels good and I’m proud we are breaking the ground with this and leading the way.”
Why is it such a positive move?
The news means women will be able to enter the clinics without fear of intimidation. Abortion clinics have a notoriously long and fraught history with pro-life campaigners. Anna Veglio-White, co-founder of pro-choice organisation Sister Supporter, told The Guardian women using the Ealing clinic had been asked by pro-lifers to pick pink or blue rosaries for their unborn child and asked to “give their child a birthday present” by priests. Catholic anti-abortion group, Good Counsel Network, have also heckled women entering the clinic, calling them ‘mum’.
When conversations came to fruition last year about the best way to protect women seeking abortions, a committee of politicians listened to evidence from managers of abortion clinics, who revealed women had been physically blocked from entering clinics by protesters, and pregnant women had been left so distressed by the abuse they refused to leave the clinics even during fire alarms.
Clinical operations manager of Ealing’s Marie Stopes abortion clinic, John Hansen-Brevetti, said for the last 20 years around 40 protesters have been outside his clinic for up to 40 hours a week. Women are often so upset they ask to be escorted out and, on occasion, the police have been called – but are unable to act because harassment laws apply only to individuals who repeatedly approach a victim.
What needs to happen next?
The new move for Ealing is great news for women, but there are around 40 abortion clinics across England, Wales and Scotland, so this rule needs to be rolled out across all clinics as soon as possible.
To understand why we need this ban so badly, we have to look at the alternative. We all know abortion is legal in the UK, but many might not be aware that self-aborting is not. Bar Ireland, the UK carries one of the harshest punishments for self-inducing a miscarriage. Abortion is still technically a criminal offence unless it meets a very particular criterion – under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, any pregnant woman who tries to “procure her own miscarriage” will be “kept in penal servitude for life” – meaning attempts to self-induce carry a sentence of life imprisonment. A 1967 amendment to the law made abortion legal (but not decriminalised) meaning that currently, abortions are only legal subject to the approval of two doctors.
Despite this, there are websites selling abortion pills online that are used mostly in countries where abortion is still illegal. But according to research from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, 645 pills were seized on their way to addresses across the UK in 2016.
To avoid prosecution, there are stealthier ways for women to secure what is needed to induce a miscarriage at home. If you know where to look, there are plenty of sites listing a number of natural products that can help: 6000mg of vitamin C to be taken for three days; organic parsley inserted into the vagina as a pessary; emmenagogue herbs such as mugwort or black cohosh which encourage menstruation. However for every success story, there’s another ending with devastating effects.
How can we expect already vulnerable women to choose between inducing an abortion in the safety and comfort of their own home or facing the distressing and intimidating tactics from hordes of diligent pro-lifers outside an abortion clinic? One might be safer, but not necessarily easier.
In a wider context, abortion is currently still illegal in Ireland and Northern Ireland, even in cases of rape, incest, or foetal abnormality, and only permitted if the life of the woman is at risk. Many are hoping with the upcoming repeal the 8th vote in May this will all change. But, as with any alteration to historical laws – particularly ones concerning religion – it’s likely any new clinics built in response to the legalisation will be inundated with protesters, and women who need to use them could feel overwhelmingly intimidated to enter.
At the one clinic Ireland currently has, situated in Belfast, a Marie Stopes escort reported seeing posters with slogans reading ‘Abortion won’t un-rape her’ and images of beheaded foetuses. She detailed how escorts work in pairs – one with a body camera, and the other with a walkie talkie and panic alarm. “We have been put through intensive certified training before talking on this role,” she said. On the way out, protesters stand ready to hand the woman a leaflet that reads ‘You are now the mother of a dead baby’. In the event of the legalisation of abortion in Ireland, it will be imperative something like Ealing’s safety buffer is put in place to protect Irish women.
The extreme naivety of pro-life protesters leads them to believe intimidating women enough to stop them entering a clinic means they are preventing abortions happening altogether. Instead, it simply means abortions become a lonelier and more dangerous process. Australia recently launched an over-the-phone abortion system that allows medical professionals to coach women through administering an abortion at home, which is something that could potentially work over here. But honestly, wouldn’t the safest and more respectful decision for women be to ban protesters altogether? Let’s not work around the problem – let’s attack it at the root, like Ealing Council have done.
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