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 clinic.
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 clinic. The zone prevents any pro-life gathering or speech, including prayer, within 100 meters of the clinic.
Alina Dulgheriu is a London woman who credits the outreach she experienced outside the Ealing clinic with her decision to forego an abortion. After encountering pro-life advocates outside the clinic, 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 Ealing Council had the right to determine if the buffer zone 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 woman 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 UK 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 clinic 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 has spoken strongly against the efforts of 40 Days for Life and the Good Counsel Network. Both organizations have been active outside the Ealing clinic.
Before they were effectively criminalized by Ealing Council, 40 Days for Life and the Good Counsel Network organized prayer vigils outside the clinic, where groups of people would quietly say the rosary while volunteers offered words of support and encouragement to women entering or leaving the facility.
Some forms of “harassment” identified by Ealing Council and Huq included displaying so-called “graphic images” of children in the womb and referring to women entering the clinic as “mothers.”
Pro-life campaigners are concerned that as more regions impose buffer zones around abortion clinics, 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 clinic 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, which abortion does to the women who undergo it.
Dulgheriu told CNA that clinics like the ones in Ealing do not offer women any alternatives to abortion. She said that her efforts to see the buffer zones 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 crowd-funding campaign to meet their mounting legal costs, with a goal of over $65,000.
“This case came about because a small activist group objected to the world-view 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.