Amber Rudd, Northern Ireland needs buffer zones

 

2 January 2018

 

To The Rt Hon Amber Rudd MP

 

We are writing in support of the recent announcement that you will be conducting a review into the behaviour of anti-choice campaigners outside English and Welsh abortion clinics, and whether further police and civil powers are needed to prevent the harassment and intimidation that has been occurring.

 

We fully agree with your statement that “the decision to have an abortion is already an incredibly personal one, without women being further pressured by aggressive protesters.”

 

The evidence collected by organisations like BPAS, Marie Stopes and Sister Supporter, shows that service-users accessing abortion clinics are frequently subject to a range of harassing and intimidatory actions with the aim of preventing them from accessing legal healthcare. Anti-choice activists cause women distress and harm, in a situation when many are already feeling vulnerable and anxious.

 

We are grateful that, following moves by Councils in Ealing, Southwark and Birmingham to implement Public Space Protection Orders around specific abortion clinics in borough, national legislation will be considered in England and Wales.

 

However, we write to ensure that the situation of service-users in Northern Ireland is not forgotten.  

 

For almost 30 years the Family Planning Association (FPA)  has provided the only non-directive pregnancy choices counselling service in Northern Ireland. FPA counsellors discuss abortion as a choice with women, they do not perform abortions.  The FPA office in Belfast has been picketed on a daily basis for the past 20 years.

 

Individuals assemble around the entrance to the building, attempt to start unsolicited conversations with women on their reasons for entering, give misleading leaflets, display graphic images, hold prayer vigils, bless the entrance with holy water and write chalk messages on the pavement outside, such as, ‘FPA, how many kids have you killed today?’  They follow women and their families as they leave the building and use emotive and coercive language to dissuade visitors from medical treatment, under the assumption that any woman entering or leaving the building is pregnant and considering an abortion.

 

This behaviour impacts negatively on women and their families and influences their decision to access, or not access, services. In the waiting room in the FPA office there is a comment book in which individuals can record their thoughts or mention an incident that has occurred. Below are extracts from this book:

“I came to the centre with my mum for some advice and help regarding a crisis pregnancy and was greeted by an anti-abortion protester with pictures. They stood at the door and I couldn’t get past her to get in. She told me that the picture she was holding was what my baby looked like in my womb. I was very upset by the incident. They have no right to do this, and I think something should be done about this.”

 

“Leaving the building with my sister, mother and uncle at approximately 12.30pm. Sister has been attending for counselling sessions for previous few weeks (which are really helping her)! Accosted outside door by red haired woman. Told her we didn’t need her advice. She told me, rudely, that she wasn’t speaking to me, she wanted to speak to my sister. I told her we’d phone her if we wanted her advice. She proceeded to follow us up the street, trying to push her leaflets on us. In the meantime the man who was with her followed our uncle shouting about how this would be his grandchild! Very intimidating, pure harassment and the first week it happened my sister didn’t want to come back. Something needs to be done to remove these people.”

 

“My daughter, 15 years old, was approached by a blonde haired woman and asked where she was going. I told her we were capable of making an educated choice. She then began a verbal tirade with comments such as “this is your grandchild” and “what if your daughter dies during an abortion?” Both my husband and I told her to stop but she continued and tried to block the doorway entrance. In our opinion this is harassment and will cause emotional and mental strain on any woman and their partner/family attending the clinic.”

 

In 2015 a protester was convicted for assaulting an FPA employee, in the belief that the employee was a pregnant woman leaving a counselling session. Despite the conviction, this individual continues to stand outside the FPA office without sanction. FPA has asked several times for a meeting between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the anti-abortion demonstrators, but on each occasion they refused to attend.

 

Recently Marie Stopes UK took the decision to close their clinic in Belfast. During the five years in which it operated clients and staff were subjected to harassment and intimidation. At least four anti-choice activists have been arrested for harassment.

 

Since 2014, Marie Stopes felt compelled to ensure that two escorts, one wearing a body camera, the other holding a walkie-talkie with an emergency button that was linked to the clinic, were always available to service-users. One would stay with the woman and the other would act as a buffer between her and the protesters, making it clear that they did not want any leaflets, conversation or interaction with them. The MLA for South Belfast, Clare Bailey, who worked as an escort, said:

 

“I had clients who were crying, who were terrified because protesters were using phones to record them, threatening to upload them to social media, threatening to report them to the police.  I had one client who ran into oncoming traffic in the city centre to try to get away from them.

 

In my time as a Marie Stopes escort I have been spat at, splashed with holy water, had my hair pulled, I’ve been threatened, abused, intimidated, harassed, all sorts of behaviour.”

 

In April 2017, the members of Belfast City Council passed a resolution condemning “all harassment and intimidation taking place outside facilities that offer reproductive healthcare, including attempts to physically block access to facilities, verbal intimidation, and the filming and recording of staff and clients entering and leaving the building."  Fifty councillors voted in favour, three abstained, and none voted against.  This motion shows that harassment is occurring, and that even pro-life party members (of the DUP) condemn the anti-choice activists.

The human rights of women in Northern Ireland need protecting in the same way as the human rights of women in England and Wales.  The devolved government in Northern Ireland has been on hold since the collapse of the Assembly in January. Therefore, the intervention of Westminster is the only way for service-users in Northern Ireland seeking information and counselling or making individual reproductive choices to be offered the same protection as their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

Before the Assembly shutdown, Clare Bailey, MLA for South Belfast, had been working on a Private Members Bill to address the harassment of service-users in Northern Ireland. Because there is no Executive in place, she has had to place this initiative on hold.  However, she had carried out the first stage of a public consultation, with approximately 600 replies that overwhelmingly supported some form of buffer zone, and is happy to share the results if it would be of any assistance.

 

Members of the FPA, Alliance for Choice, and the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, would welcome a meeting with you to discuss including Northern Ireland in your review, or what other steps could be taken to ensure that women in Northern Ireland are protected from harassing and threatening behaviour.  

 

We look forward to hearing from you.

 

Yours sincerely

 

The London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign

Alliance for Choice

Family Planning Association

 

 
Hannah Little