"Women's rights are human rights too. Ealing Council was right to impose a PSPO outside Marie Stopes."
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Louise Heath
‘Change your lifestyle, you should’ve kept your baby today,’ the man shouts at the woman, as she leaves the Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing. It’s one of the many forms of harassment women experience there. I know because, for the past year, I have spent pretty much every Saturday standing outside.
I’ve lived in Ealing, a quiet, leafy suburb of west London, for the past 27 years; for 23 of them there has been an anti-abortion vigil outside the clinic. The main group congregates in the direct line of the entrance, under the tree, praying, singing and chanting. Graphic images line the pavement. The two ‘pavement counsellors’ stand at each entrance holding leaflets and colour-coded rosary beads – blue for boys and pink for girls. It’s their job to stop the women as they enter and leave the clinic. The sex of the baby is often a question that they ask the women (or ‘mums’ as they always refer to them).
The first time I saw the vigil I was so enraged that I stopped my car, got out, and shouted. Fourteen years later I found a better way of dealing with my anger: a legal remedy and a campaign group.
Credit Sister SupporterSister Supporter rally with Sue James (centre), Rupa Huq MP (fifth from left) and Ealing councillor Binda Rai (fourth from right).
The group: Sister Supporter, an eclectic mix of local people who came together to find a way to stop the harassment of women at the clinic. It is an amazing group of talented people and proof that anthropologist Margaret Mead was right when she said: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.’ I just never thought that I’d have to wear pink to do it.
The remedy: a public spaces protection order (PSPO) because the behaviour outside the clinic was having a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality, it was persistent in nature, and the proposed prohibitions were reasonable. A petition organised by Sister Supporter and signed by over 3,000 residents asked the council to consider a PSPO or other legal action.
On 10 April, Ealing Council took the brave step of introducing the first UK safe zone outside an abortion clinic. Parts of the United States and Australia already have protected areas. The results of the eight-week council consultation revealed that 85 per cent of residents were in favour of protecting the space.
This was also the view expressed by numerous residents as they passed by each week. Parents were being forced into conversations about abortion, which they didn’t want to have on a sunny Saturday morning as they walked past the clinic to the park. I felt the same on that day I stopped 14 years ago. My boys were in the back of the car as I shouted and, on returning, my seven-year-old son asked, ‘Who were they Mummy?’ My reply became his first women’s right to choose talk – a bit earlier than I would have wanted, but I wasn’t going to lie.
I know the decision raises human rights issues, but articles 9,10 and 11 are qualified rights, as is article 8. Women have the right to private and family life, and to anonymity when using legal healthcare services. These rights must be balanced. The evidence collated by Sister Supporter 1 Sister Supporter evidence pack.pdf and the council over the consultation period was overwhelming: from women, residents, the clinic staff and employees of the council who had been placed anonymously inside the clinic. There was harassment and intimidation. Women’s rights are human rights too.
So, what about the police? What about the powers they have to prosecute for harassment and intimidation? We provided them with evidence that women were being caused alarm and distress – lots of it – but they didn’t feel that they could take action. We were told in writing that calling a woman ‘mum’ in this context was ‘not nice’, but also not actionable.
The idea of protest is to bring about change. It targets powerful bodies and institutions. The tactics used by anti-abortion protesters outside abortion clinics (and they agree they are tactics) are to target women at their most vulnerable. They are not targeting anyone who has the power to make the broader changes they want to see, ie, an end to all abortions. They say they want to help women, to offer alternatives. If this is true, then there are numerous opportunities for doing so that don’t involve standing outside the clinic entrance.
Whatever your views, at least we are having the debate. And from the response Sister Supporter has received, the rest of the country, and indeed the world, is watching.
 
1      Sister Supporter evidence pack.pdf »

About the author(s)

Sue James
Sue James is supervising solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre and a founding trustee at Ealing Law Centre. She won the outstanding...