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courtesy of Sister Supporter

The fight against anti-abortion protesters harassing women

Ealing Council made a monumental move to stop the intimidating vigils at the west London Marie Stopes clinic

A London Borough has become the first local authority in Britain to potentially ban anti-choice protesters from outside an abortion clinic's premises - a move that would protect women from harassment and trauma, as they access vital, legal healthcare.

Councillors in Ealing voted majority, with two abstentions, to take “all necessary actions within its powers, utilising all necessary resources, to prevent anti-abortion protesters from intimidating and harassing women”, at the Marie Stopes clinic on Matlock Lane, west London.

The vote, which took place on Tuesday night (October 10), was proposed by Councillor Binda Rai of Labour, who outlined that a Public Space Protection Order may be used to discourage protesters. PSPOs are designed for the purpose of preventing anti-social behaviour.

The motion followed campaigning for two years by local pro-choice direct-action group Sister Supporter. Founder Anna Veglio-White presented a petition with over 3000 signatures to the council meeting (more than double what was needed) and spoke on the harassment women face at the clinic. One teenage client was told she would be “haunted by her baby.”

She said, “Sister Supporter are delighted by the outcome of the council meeting. We thank everyone who spoke on behalf of the women, of the clinic and the residents of Ealing. We welcome with cautious optimism the result, though appreciate the journey ahead will be a long but worthwhile one.”

“This is only the start of the journey to bring this 22-year legacy of harassment to a close” – Anna Veglio-White, Sister Supporter

The west London clinic, like many others across the UK, has an almost constant religious ‘vigil’ kept up outside by anti-choicers. They use disturbing, graphic posters and models of dismembered foetuses and stillborns, causing serious stress and deliberate intimidation to perturb people from accessing safe, legal abortion services. Veglio-White has detailed that pro-life protesters have called women murderers, physically blocked entry to the clinic, and made women miss their appointments by telling them the building was not Marie Stopes. Councillor Rai told the Guardian that one woman had a teddy bear thrust in her face and called ‘mum’ - it’s seriously traumatic and a threat to the safety of people going in for a medical procedure.

Sister Supporter have, for the past year, gathered as a peaceful, protective pro-choice counter protest and support network for women accessing abortion care. They wear pink and high-vis vests, and hold pro-choice, pro-women placards: “Her body, her choice”, “End the harassment of women”.

“This is only the start of the journey to bring this 22-year legacy of harassment to a close,” says Veglio-White. “We hope that other councils and eventually the government will follow, in protecting women from harm when accessing healthcare.”

Various groups rallied outside the Council chambers in support, including London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign - an organiser of the recent March for Choice in London - who were “standing in solidarity”.

It is hoped that this monumental move by Ealing Council will provide ground for other councils to act against anti-choice protesters and protect women from distress and intimidation.

On the same day of the vote, a court granted a harassment order, against the actions of a pro-life protester outside Marie Stopes in Belfast. Moira Brennan, a member of Precious Life, was convicted in 2015 of assaulting an employee of the Family Planning Association as they left the clinic in the city centre. Saoirsé Johnston, a volunteer escort with Alliance for Choice sought the order, after repeated attacks from Ms Brennan. Across the past few years, the prominent, religious-motivated Precious Life group have waged war on Belfast streets.

Marie Stopes in Belfast offers limited abortion healthcare in Belfast. This is in line with Northern Ireland being governed by the Offences Against the Person Act-a Victorian law dating to 1861-which means abortion is outlawed in almost all cases, and carries the risk of life imprisonment. The 1967 Act has never been extended to the region.

Danielle Roberts, 31, volunteers as an escort in Belfast. She became involved due to wanting “to do something practical to help people access legal healthcare.”

“Not everyone chooses to have an escort. However, some change their mind after they have come through the anti-choice people outside on the way in,” she tells Dazed. “They stand right at the door and get in people’s path. They watch people coming and going and on occasions have filmed people.”

“They try to give their literature full of misinformation, to people accessing the clinic and try to divert clients to their anti-choice premises down the road, Stanton Healthcare. When people leave the clinic, they are often followed and shouted at and at times, the pro-life protesters have got physical-grabbing and punching escorts.”

Green Party MLA for South Belfast, Clare Bailey, lodged a Private Members Bill in January this year, with the hopes of creating buffer zones at Marie Stopes and other family planning clinics in Northern Ireland. However, progress has been stalled due to the collapse of the Northern Irish Assembly last winter, over issues to do with Northern Irish identity, culture and the violence of the past.

Meanwhile, in Canada, Ontario’s attorney general recently announced that the government will create “safe-access zones” around family planning clinics, pharmacies selling the morning after pill and the homes of staff. The provinces of British Columbia, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador already enforce such laws.

In the U.S, the last abortion clinic in Kentucky is currently struggling to stay open, with the state's government trying to close it.

2017 marks 50 years since the legalisation of abortion in the UK, excluding Northern Ireland. Five decades later, women are still fighting for their right to access free, safe, legal abortion services without trauma, stigma or intimidation. 

Until the buffer zone is in place, Sister Supporter will continue to hold their pro-choice anti-vigils in Ealing. If you want to get involved, visit their page here. You can also find out how to volunteer with London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign here, and keep up with the abortion rights campaign in Northern Ireland with Alliance for Choice here.