By: Jo Siedlecka
Pro-life campaigners have expressed their shock after Ealing Council in west London last night voted unanimously in favour of allowing a Public Spaces Protection Order, (PSPO) to create a 100 metre protest-free safe zone outside a Marie Stopes clinic.
The issue was discussed after more than 3,500 people signed a petition put forward by the Sisters Support campaign, calling for anti-abortion vigils to be moved to at least a distance of 100m from the clinic "to eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation of women."
During the hearing, councillors gave their reasons for voting for the safe zone to be put in place, citing a number incidents where they said women had been frightened and intimidated. One said that a woman had been told that having an abortion would increase her chances of developing cancer. Others said that patients were afraid to walk past the vigils.
A local Catholic who attended the hearing said: "It was very unfair. The people who spoke in favour of the safe zones spoke anectdotally but did not produce any substantial evidence. At the end the pro-choice group cheered and applauded as the cabinet members voted the proposal through."
Premier Radio reported that the meeting almost had to be adjourned when two distressed women walked up to cabinet members, urging them to reconsider. One told them: "I cannot give up on this. Please go back and review what you have just done here."
Council leader Julian Bell said that he felt the ruling had been needed for a long time. He said: "it feels good that we are actually breaking the ground with this and leading the way. So I'm proud that we are doing it." He added: "We've always been clear that that's what this was about. It wasn't a debate for or against abortion."
He added that the order will be reviewed in six months "to see whether we had the outcomes we are hoping."
The ban will probably come into place on April 23 after a cooling-off period, he said, adding that the council had noted there may be a legal challenge.
Claire McCulloch from the Good Council Network denied that her group had ever harassed women visiting the clinic. She told ICN that the Network are seeking legal advice and hope to appeal.
When the hearing was announced last October, Claire said: "We've never heard of any incident. We've been involved in the vigil for more than 20 years and we have a very tight code of practice. We have helped hundreds of women over the years." She said that each year the group has spoken with around 300 women and managed to 'turn around' up to 100 a year.
Claire said that the Sister Support group which started arriving recently had been very disruptive "playing loud 80s pop music." "One person actually grabbed a leaflet we were trying to give to a woman as she went into the clinic," she said.
On their website, The Good Council Network offers: "free pregnancy test, free advice, medical information, practical help and moral support to women seeking abortion. We reach out to women seeking abortion who have not been informed about the risks to their physical and psychological health and who have not been presented with realistic alternatives to abortion. We deal with the hardest cases of crisis pregnancy every day….
"Our work involves the simple befriending of women and educating them about abortion and the humanity of their child, which is done through excellent literature and videos. Then we speak to them about God's plan for them and their child. Finally we offer women practical help and moral support which they may need to keep their child, from accommodation and financial help, baby clothes and nappies, to friendship ongoing support, advice and planning for the future. Staff at The Good Counsel Network offer their time and work to Jesus through Mary."
Claire told ICN that the Good Council Network hold their vigil from Monday to Friday from 8.30am to 4pm. The SSPX attend on Friday afternoons and Helpers of Gods Precious Infants also take part occasionally.
Alina Dulgheriu, who spoke for Be Here For Me, said she decided not to have an abortion after being handed a leaflet by a woman outside the clinic. She said was offered financial, practical and moral help, as well as accommodation, and now has a "beautiful" six-year-old daughter. "I was given a real choice by the woman at the gate... this will remove life-saving help when it's most needed."
For more information about the Good Council Network, see: www.goodcounselnet.co.uk/About-Good-Counsel.html
Read more about Be Here For Me: https://behereforme.org
See a video of the vigil on the Sister Support Facebook page: www.facebook.com/SisterSupporter/videos/vb.1495422830759303/1728429617458622/?type=2&theater