Denying women access to legitimate choices and hope
A UK council thinks women should be protected from people offering leaflets on abortion
Anti-abortion protesters continue a vigil outside a Marie Stopes abortion clinic in London. File photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
When Alina Dulgheriu discovered she was pregnant, she was also facing the loss of her job as a live-in au pair. The father pressured her to have an abortion. She rang the Marie Stopes Clinic in Ealing and poured out her heart. She was looking for support but the woman in the clinic told her that all they could offer was an abortion and why not come in to discuss her options?
Outside the clinic, on the darkest day of Dulgheriu’s life, a woman offered her a leaflet explaining that there was practical help available. For the first time, Dulgheriu felt that her child was wanted, not only by her but by complete strangers. Her beautiful, curly-headed daughter is now the centre of Dulgheriu’s existence.
When Ealing Council imposed a censorship zone around the Marie Stopes Clinic, Dulgheriu started a crowdfunding appeal to legally challenge the right of the council to deny women access to legitimate choices and hope. And yes, it is that Marie Stopes Clinic – the one where Aisha Chithera, who had travelled from Ireland, was put into a taxi after an abortion at 22 weeks, even though she complained about feeling warm and dizzy after vomiting. She bled to death
In 2011, Dr Phanuel Dartey was struck off for his treatment of five patients, including another Irishwoman, in Marie Stopes, Ealing. He perforated her womb and left parts of the baby inside her. She spent two months critically ill in an Irish hospital. And in 2017, the UK’s Care Quality Commission (CQC) found that in all 70 Marie Stopes Clinics, there was a policy of contacting women who had decided not to go through with an abortion and offering them another appointment. Some clinics offered bonuses to staff for persuading women to proceed.
Yet Ealing Council thinks that women should be protected from people offering leaflets outside?
The censorship zone around the Ealing clinic is so large that it encompasses part of a local park. Doing anything which can be construed as expressing an opinion on abortion, such as an elderly woman saying her rosary on a park bench while holding a pro-life leaflet, will leave her in breach of the exclusion-zone conditions.
Irish politicians want the same draconian legislation enacted here, citing the Ealing Council decision as a precedent.
Dulgheriu, whose baby was saved by the kindness of strangers, was in Dublin earlier this month at the invitation of Carol Nolan TD, who invited every politician in the Oireachtas to come and hear her. Simon Harris did not turn up; neither did Catherine Noone, or Ruth Coppinger, or any of the other politicians baying for exclusion zones.
But why would Harris listen? He has not met organisations representing mothers who decided to continue their pregnancies after a distressing diagnosis of a life-limiting condition; he has not met representatives of women who regret their abortions; why would he listen to a woman for whom a leaflet outside a clinic provided a lifeline to the choice she really wanted to make and which poverty and potential homelessness would have made impossible for her?
All women are equal, but some women are more equal than others. Harris only listens to women who think exactly the same way as he does.
In this neat, black-and-white world, women are always sanguine about their decisions to end their child’s life. They are never influenced by the threat of being one of the estimated 30 to 40 pregnant women who are homeless at any given time in our pathetic little State.
In Harris’s view, anyone offering an alternative to abortion in a quiet, respectful way is doing so only out of twisted motives to intimidate, bully and control women. His mind is not open enough to grasp that women might actually be offering a helping hand to others, either because they are grateful for what they received themselves, like Dulgheriu, or because they feel compassion and empathy for women who feel they have no other choice except abortion. It is unthinkable that they might be doing their best to make up for the failures of a system that institutionalises inequality.
The irony is that the major pro-life organisations are close to agreeing on a code of conduct for those assembling to demonstrate that there are alternatives to abortion – quiet, dignified presence, with no graphic imagery and certainly no shaming or harassment. Why would anyone want to accost or harass someone with whom you want to build a relationship?
Graffiti on a doctor’s surgery is disgusting (pro-life organisations have had slogans daubed on their offices, too, and even faeces at times). Protesting outside someone’s home is inexcusable. But even if pro-life organisations voluntarily create a code of conduct, the Minister will still legislate.
If he wanted to create a 100km instead of a 100m exclusion zone, Harris has the votes to do it. And Amnesty, an organisation founded to defend the rights of conscience, will cheer. Pro-life or pro-choice, the extinction of the right to peacefully assemble and offer alternatives should cause us all to shiver.