The use of criminalised free speech zones (‘buffer zones’) around abortion clinics could be challenged at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
It comes after the UK Supreme Court refused to hear the legal challenge against Ealing Council’s Public Space Protection Order which criminalises offering emotional and practical support outside the Marie Stopes abortion clinic in West London.
Alina Dulgheriu had wanted to challenge the criminalised free speech zone after receiving support from pro-life campaigners outside an abortion clinic several years ago.
The mother launched a legal fight against the Council’s Public Space Protection Order in April 2018 because she wants other potential mothers to receive the same help she was offered, and because it prevents the help some women need to escape an unwanted or coerced abortion.
The High Court accepted that her rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly had been infringed, but ultimately upheld Ealing’s criminalised free speech zone.
The Court of Appeal had granted permission for the challenge to be appealed, but also sided with Ealing Council in a ruling last year.
It means Alina’s only legal option now is to challenge the council at the European Court of Human Rights – something she and her legal team are now considering.
Before it had been displaced by the criminalised free speech zone, the pro-life demonstration outside the MSI abortion clinic in Ealing had seen more than 500 women accept an offer of help which led to them choosing to keep their baby rather than have an abortion.
Additionally, In 2017, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee heard that there was no probative evidence to suggest women were being harassed outside abortion facilities, whether in Ealing, Portsmouth, Birmingham, or elsewhere in the country.
In contrast, the Be Here for Me website tells just some of the many stories of women who have been helped by people outside abortion clinics – including some of mothers from Ealing.
In a similar case, a PSPO passed by Richmond Council has been challenged by Justyna Pasek, who has personally supported women visiting the abortion clinic in Richmond for over five years.
Earlier this year, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan reiterated his support for criminalised free speech zones. In 2018, he claimed that those living in London would be “deeply disappointed” over the then Home Secretary’s decision not to roll out ‘buffer zones’ nationwide.
Meanwhile the former Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, chose not to introduce nationwide criminalised free speech zones. He said that such a move would not be proportionate in light of the ‘passive’ nature of activities outside of abortion clinics, as well as the existing powers of local councils and police.
Prominent human rights campaigners, including those who would describe themselves as pro-abortion and ‘pro-choice’, seem to agree. A number of them have expressed their concerns about the ease with which the use of criminalised free speech zones allow councils to override basic human rights law.
Reacting to the decision, Alina Dulgheriu said:
“I am devastated to hear that the Supreme Court has decided not to consider my appeal. My little girl is here today because of the practical and emotional support that I was offered outside a Marie Stopes centre, and I brought the appeal to ensure that other women did not have this vital support option removed.
“It is unthinkable that any council would criminalise an offer of help to a woman who might want to keep her child. Ealing Council could have taken action in a way that would have safeguarded the essential help offered at the gate. Instead, they made charity a criminal offence and removed dedicated and caring individuals from public space without justification.
“It is a travesty of justice to see the courts ignoring the impact this decision will have on vulnerable women who are in desperate need of a little help and support. The voices of these women have been sidelined throughout this process, even though they will be the ones most deeply affected by the removal of this life-changing support.
“I am deeply grateful to all those who have supported me in bringing the legal challenge – without their incredible generosity this appeal would not have been possible. I am discussing my position with my legal team and will be considering all options, including an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.”
Elizabeth Howard, Be Here For Me spokesperson said:
“Eight years ago, Alina Dulgheriu found herself jobless, homeless and alone after an unplanned pregnancy. She’d been fired from her job as a live-in nanny and abandoned by her boyfriend.
“She went to Marie Stopes to get advice on her options, but all they could offer her was an abortion. She didn’t want that but didn’t know where to turn.
“Her life was changed when she met a pro-life volunteer at the gates of the abortion centre who told her that she did have options, that there was help available, and that she could keep her baby if she wanted.
“She accepted the offer of help and her daughter was born. She is now seven years old, a beautiful, lively and beloved child.
“Ealing Council has banned pro-lifers from helping women like Alina. Alina has challenged their decision in court, but twice the court have ignored her story.
“In five years of the pro-life vigil’s work in Ealing, hundreds of women have accepted an offer of help and chose to keep their baby rather than have an abortion. These women have tried again and again to have their voices heard, but they are ignored.
“It is disgraceful that in both court judgments, there is literally not a single sentence, not a single word, dedicated to the women who have been helped by the vigil, who are grateful for the vigil, and who have given the other side of the story.
“The Supreme Court had an opportunity to rectify this deep miscarriage of justice, but has now declined to do so.
“This is a very sad day for vulnerable women.”