“Don’t criminalise help” – Mum who benefited from volunteers outside an abortion clinic backs Petition of Concern to stop introduction of ‘censorship zones’

 In Be Here For Me

Eleven years ago, I was single, abandoned, facing unemployment, and terrified when I discovered I was pregnant. On Tuesday, Stormont will vote on a bill in the name of “protecting” women who find themselves in my situation.  

The funny thing is, the voices of women like me rarely get a chance to be heard in relation to  what would actually help us. If the politicians at Stormont asked us if this legislation would actually help us, I think they would be very surprised at our answer.   

That bill, designed to prevent us from hearing about offers of support to continue our pregnancies, will shut down options open to women who find themselves in crisis. Such legislation would have been detrimental to the course of my life. To explain more, let me take you back a decade. 

I didn’t sleep the night before my appointment at Marie Stopes. Some would say I had “chosen” abortion. The truth is I didn’t choose it. I just didn’t seem to have any other option. My baby wouldn’t know her father. I had little in the way of financial or emotional support. I wanted to keep her, but I didn’t know how. What could I do? I saw on the abortion provider’s website that the clinic offered pre-abortion counselling. I called and asked for some help. “We only offer abortion,” came the glib reply.  

The reality is that so many women like me have had to make an abortion appointment not through choice, but by pressure. A BBC poll last week showed that more than one in ten women have felt “coerced” into having an abortion. This could be at the hands of an unsupportive partner like mine; or parents, or friends telling women that there’s no way that they could ever handle motherhood. In fact, coercion could stem from abortion providers too. Staff at a Marie Stopes facility raised concerns to the Care Quality Commission that “the pressurised environment and linking of KPIs to performance bonuses meant that there was a culture that worked against patient choice.” And that’s not to mention soft cultural pressure too. Female Irish pilots, for example, were told in 2019 that they could “either terminate your employment contract…or terminate your pregnancy.” So much for female empowerment. 

You don’t have to disagree with abortion to see that simply offering alternatives should be legally permissable. The day that I turned up to my abortion appointment, a volunteer outside the clinic gave me a leaflet. It offered the help that I had been searching for. I weighed up the two options I had before me, and I chose motherhood. I chose to accept help to get housing, help to find a job and help to obtain a pram, a cot and nappies. It wasn’t easy. But with the support of the group who had given me that leaflet, I couldn’t be prouder of the life my daughter and I have charted out together. 

Now back on my feet, I pass on the favour by going back out on to the streets near abortion clinics to offer help to other women who want support. Don’t dismiss my case as a one-off. There are hundreds of women just like me who have benefited, both here in London where I live, and in Northern Ireland.  

Those pushing for this ban on help have characterised the activities of pro-lifers as “harassment”. Having been in the shoes of a woman facing abortion, I would never stand for this. Harassment is wrong and would be supremely hypocritical of a group claiming to offer help. But a Home Office review of the need for “buffer zones” in 2018 showed that any instances of harassment are rare outliers. Even still, if they occur, police in Northern Ireland already have the powers they need to deal with those potential situations. A vote for censorship zones on Tuesday won’t add anything extra to stop bad-faith actors. But it will extend a ban on freedom of assembly to the extent that it takes out the “good guys”, too.  

If MLAs in the Assembly really want to support and empower women – even to promote “choice” – this isn’t it. Removing the option to receive help to keep a child in case we feel “offended” is deeply patronising, assuming that we can’t make a decision for ourselves. 

I’m calling on MLAs to sign a Petition of Concern to ensure that this Bill does not pass. Women in Northern Ireland must continue to receive the support that I did. Had I not received that support, my daughter would not be here today. If Stormont wants to stand with women, they have to stand by real help for women, too.  

Alina Dulgheriu is part of Be Here For Me, a group of mothers who oppose the introduction of buffer zones around abortion clinics, on account of the support they received themselves from pro-life volunteers. She challenged the UK’s first buffer zone in the Court of Appeal in 2019.