Further attack on civil liberties as Richmond council bans pro-life vigil
6 March 2019
One counsellor offers a leaflet as women enter the Richmond clinic. They are free to take it or ignore it.
"If the people from GCN can’t stand by the gate, it means you put vulnerable women, mothers, human beings, in danger."
In the latest example of official intolerance towards pro-lifers, Richmond Council has voted to impose a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) around the BPAS abortion centre on Rosslyn Road, Twickenham.
Yesterday, the council unanimously ratified an earlier decision to implement the PSPO and so ban the peaceful pro-life prayer vigil primarily run by the Good Counsel Network.
Richmond is the second council after Ealing to use a PSPO (which replaced ASBOs) to prevent people praying and offering help to women outside an abortion clinic. Like at Ealing, concerns have been raised by Liberty and other organisations about the provisions of the order being too broad and too vague to render it proportionate. The PSPO makes it a criminal offence to make any offer of help to women on Rosslyn Road, and bans "directed" prayer and counselling.
Ignoring plight of women
Many mothers who received help outside the clinic have also expressed their dismay that another council has introduced a censorship zone that prevents vulnerable women from receiving information about help and support available to them.
Seven women gave testimonies to a Richmond Council officer about the support they received from the Good Counsel Network. Councillors said they would consider these testimonies, yet in their "impact assessment" the Council said that a PSPO would have no negative impact that they could identify on pregnant women. In fact, they said it would have a positive effect on pregnant women because it "will safeguard and facilitate the ability for pregnant women access (sic) to the Clinics heath services related to pregnancy and maternity."
Clare McCullough of the Good Counsel Network (GCN) told SPUC that she offered to reduce the vigil to just one person with a leaflet offering help, with no one praying and no placards, but was told that would be "too distressing for clients and staff".
No evidence of harassment
Individuals participating in the pro-life vigil had been accused of "harassing" and "intimidating" women outside the BPAS clinic, but Richmond Council were unable to substantiate these serious allegations against vigil members in their correspondence with GCN. Investigating council officers had only observed peaceful activities such as handing out leaflets, praying and displaying placards. In 2014, local police were forced to withdraw a threat to disperse the pro-life vigil using public order legislation, in the absence of any evidence.
While Richmond sought to further justify the PSPO on the basis of a local consultation result, concerns have already been raised about the framing of the consultation questions, a misinformed understanding of the actions of vigil members, and a decision to exclude over 1,000 responses to the consultation coming from Be Here For Me, the campaign group representing mothers who have been helped by vigils.
Who will help women like Ilda?
One mother, Ilda, said it is vulnerable women who will suffer if GCN are banned from offering help. "I think after this meeting you have to be very careful...honestly, you cannot receive that kind of support anywhere else," she said. "So if the people from GCN can’t stand by the gate, it means you put vulnerable women, mothers, human beings, in danger. Because I have been there by myself. In my experience I have even been to a woman’s refuge and I have been 'let go', left on the road, with no money, with nothing. So these pro-life people need to be standing there outside the abortion clinics."
She concludes by saying: "This is nothing to do with 'offensive', [banning] this is not right on a human level, it’s not right. You want me to kill my baby so that you can feel relaxed? – I think this question finishes everything."
Sadly, for Richmond Council, it does not.
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