British Pro-Lifers Say Abortion-Facility ‘Buffer Zones’ Harm Women and Children

Two women are attempting to overturn a ban on prayer and public discussion of abortion near a British abortion business.

The Royal Courts of Justice building, which houses the High Court of England and Wales, is pictured in London Feb. 3, 2017.
The Royal Courts of Justice building, which houses the High Court of England and Wales, is pictured in London Feb. 3, 2017. (photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — After a decision from the United Kingdom’s High Court, two women are attempting to overturn a ban on prayer and public discussion of abortion near a British abortion business.

On July 2, the High Court of England and Wales upheld a “buffer zone” imposed by Ealing Council, west London, around a Marie Stopes abortion business. The zone prevents any pro-life gathering or speech, including prayer, within 100 meters (109 yards) of the facility.

Alina Dulgheriu is a London woman who credits the outreach she experienced outside the Ealing facility with her decision to forego an abortion. After encountering pro-life advocates, she changed her mind about a planned abortion, instead giving birth to a daughter, who is now 7 years old.

Dulgheriu is now leading a fight to overturn the buffer-zone ruling.

“Before I was approached outside of the clinic, I felt as though I had no choice but to have an abortion,” Dulgheriu told CNA.

“The support that I was offered, both financial and practical, provided me with another option that I didn’t even realize existed. Without it, my beautiful daughter wouldn’t be here today.”

Dulgheriu, together with another local woman, has challenged the ruling from the High Court. That decision recognized that the buffer zone said Ealing Council had the right to determine if it was “a necessary step in a democratic society.”

The women said they will, if necessary, take their case to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, the highest appellate court available to them.

“I cannot believe that the council has taken away a choice from women that has the potential to change their lives for the better,” Dulgheriu said.

“I hope that I will be in a position to appeal the decision because I cannot imagine a society where offering to help a women is seen as a criminal offense.”

Ryan Day, senior policy officer at ADF International, a legal organization that advocates for religious liberty, called the High Court’s decision “astonishing.” He told CNA that “the court has upheld the criminalization of prayer and free discourse on U.K. streets, probably for the first time since the Reformation era.”

Day called the buffer zone a “travesty,” saying “there has not been a single reported instance of genuine harassment or intimidation arising from the outreach outside of the Ealing clinic. These are peaceful people exercising what are, or should be, bedrock civil liberties, in the hope of saving lives.”

At the time of the zone’s introduction, Ealing Council leader Julian Bell called it “something that’s long been needed” to protect women entering and leaving the facility from alleged harassment. Abortion supporters have accused pro-life activists of “intimidation.”

Local Member of Parliament Rupa Huq said the prayer vigils were “weaponizing rosary beads.”

Huq, who has previously suggested a future British government could apologize for the creation of the state of Israel, has spoken strongly against the efforts of 40 Days for Life and the Good Counsel Network. Both organizations have been active outside of the Ealing facility.

Before they were effectively criminalized by the Ealing Council, 40 Days for Life and the Good Counsel Network organized prayer vigils outside the business, where groups of people would quietly pray the Rosary while volunteers offered words of support and encouragement to women entering or leaving the facility.

Some forms of “harassment” identified by the Ealing Council and Huq included displaying so-called “graphic images” of children in the womb and referring to women entering the business as “mothers.”

Pro-life campaigners are concerned that as more regions impose buffer zones around abortion facilities, pro-life speech is effectively becoming classed as “hate speech” and that this could spread to treat public opposition to abortion generally as “harassment” of women.

“It sets a very dangerous precedent, where a council is able to prevent genuine offers of assistance to pregnant women on the basis that the people who offer it are pro-life. Ealing Council consistently said that their decision to ban the vigil had nothing to do with abortion, but that just does not appear to be the case,” Day told CNA

Earlier this year, a medical inquest found that “repeated failures” by the Ealing facility resulted in the death of a 32-year-old woman, who bled to death following an abortion performed at the site in 2012. That finding came as a bitter irony for campaigners trying to draw attention to the often unacknowledged harm, emotional and physical, that abortion does to women.

Dulgheriu told CNA that clinics like the ones in Ealing do not offer women any alternatives to abortion. She said out that her efforts to see the buffer-zone laws overturned are as much for the protection of mothers as for children.

“If the vigils are removed, who will look out for the mothers who desperately do not want to go ahead with an abortion? These mothers can be in very vulnerable circumstances, sometimes in abusive relationships, and vigils can offer them housing and refuge that abortion clinics could never provide,” she said.

Dulgheriu and her co-appellant, who has filed for anonymity in the court process, have launched a crowdfunding campaign to meet their mounting legal costs, with a goal of 50,000 pounds.

“This case came about because a small activist group objected to the worldview of a group of committed, compassionate individuals in Ealing, but it has extraordinary consequences for what freedom of expression looks like across Europe,” Day told CNA.

“If prayer and offers of support can be criminalized in the vicinity of abortion clinics, there are real concerns about the extent to which pro-life speech is acceptable in the wider public square.”

The appeal is expected to be heard sometime later this year.

Ed Condon is the Washington, D.C., editor for Catholic News Agency