Yesterday the Select Committee looking into the issue of harassment at abortion clinics met to take evidence. This committee has been set up in response to the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, announcing a review of police powers to prevent intimidation. We went along to hear Ealing Council, Marie Stopes and BPAS give evidence. The Good Counsel Network and the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) also spoke.
Julian Bell, Ealing Council leader, and Binda Rai, councillor for the Walpole ward, described the situation at Marie Stopes, Ealing and the process that the Council is currently following. Councillor Bell explained that negotiation with the anti-abortion groups who protest and ‘counsel’ at Marie Stopes was taking place but that a voluntary compromise was unlikely because those groups insist on having a ‘physical’ interaction with women entering the clinic. The Council are waiting for a report commissioned into other options for dealing with the problem before making the decision whether to implement a PSPO or other legal solution.
The speakers from Marie Stopes and BPAS gave evidence regarding harassment at clinics nationwide. The behaviours we have seen and documented in Ealing are replicated across the country. In some places even more extreme groups are active. What was important though, was the clear message that even just one person accosting women at the gate of a clinic is one person too many. If any woman feels intimidated and harassed when accessing these healthcare services then something must be done to prevent this. It was also made clear that the police, when contacted, did not feel that they had the appropriate powers to deal with the situation.
Clare Murphy from BPAS also gave evidence that some women encountering vigils and ‘pavement counsellors’ at clinics are either choosing to go to another clinic, thus delaying their treatment and putting themselves at risk, or are choosing a sub-optimal treatment (receiving both doses of the medication on the same day instead of separately). Members of the committee were visibly disturbed by this information.
All pro-choice parties were clear that, although a local solution should and will be sought in Ealing, a change in national legislation is essential to avoid creating a ‘postcode lottery’ situation where women in some areas are protected from harassment, whilst women in other areas are not.
Speakers from the Good Counsel Network and SPUC denied that any harassment took place at the clinics, at one point suggesting that BPAS, Marie Stopes and all the women who have given evidence of intimidation are lying. The GCN is now following a clear strategy of blaming Sister Supporter for all trouble at the Marie Stopes clinic, denying that their ‘counsellors’ upset women.
Yvette Cooper, MP, who was chairing the committee session kept all parties focussed on the subject of harassment, following our stance in Ealing that this is not about religious differences or debates of abortion law. In her questioning of she asked what the implications would be if no changes to national legislation and/or local regulation took place. It was clear from the responses that the anti-abortion groups will not voluntarily agree to move away from clinic gates, regardless of women’s rights to access these services free from intimidation.
Current legislation on harassment requires proof that one person is persistently harassing another individual. It does not provide for a situation where groups are persistently harassing multiple individuals on single occasions. For this reason we at Sister Supporter still believe that a buffer zone, or safe zone, is the only solution to this problem. We continue to work with Ealing Council in their efforts to protect women at Mattock Lane. In addition, we support all attempts to find a national solution, championed by Rupa Huq MP and the BPAS #backoff campaign.
Help BPAS to tell anti-abortion protesters to #BackOff. If you have encountered them outside a clinic, they would be grateful to hear from you. https://back-off.org/share-your-experience/