Should anti-abortion groups be allowed to protest outside clinics?

What happens when rights collide

On 26 September, 40 Days for Life will begin “the largest and longest internationally coordinated pro-life mobilisation in history”.   The organisation is US-based, but operates worldwide. Ostensibly it exists to organise 40 days of Christian prayer and fasting, peaceful vigil and community outreach.  It just so happens this will be directly outside nine UK abortion providers including BPAS, Marie Stopes and NHS hospitals.

In our country it is clearly legal and permissible to organise a prayer vigil.  It is also permissible to seek advice on a termination and to have one carried out, within the terms of the law.  The question arises of what happens when the exercise of the first of these impinges on the second.

40 Days states that Christ taught us that some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting, and that these acts will bring an end to abortion. On its website it quotes from the Book of Chronicles about wicked people being listened to from heaven, and having their sins forgiven.  However, many would say it is less God’s intervention than the actions of its 500K+ members, which have led to the specific measurable results it boasts of.  These include having closed down 24 abortion centres, 69 workers having quit their jobs, and having “saved” 5,928 babies to date worldwide.

40 Days is not a simple prayer group: it is a highly organised body that agitates to obstruct and prevent individual women seeking legal terminations.  Participants book specific timeslots over its website at the locations targeted.  There’s a code of conduct for participants, none of which prohibits displaying distressing images, or photographing or filming attendees (all of which have happened previously at 40 Day vigils in the UK).  Last week members of the anti-abortion group, Abort67, were found not guilty of public order offences for displaying large images of aborted foetuses and approaching women entering a clinic in Brighton. One complainant had apparently been raped; another was attending following a miscarriage.

Most of us would doubtless subscribe broadly to the old line (misattributed to Voltaire) that we might disagree with someone’s view, but defend their right to say it.  This suggests an acceptance that freedom of speech should be an absolute, unlimited right.  In fact, almost everywhere the right is qualified, and for very good reason. In the US, the First Amendment is limited by a series of cases such as Schenck v US (the famous quote about free speech not protecting falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic). In Europe, Article 10(2) of the ECHR specifically sets out permissible limitations on freedom of expression. We can, and should, argue about the parameters: draw the precise line where you will on the incitement of violence, hate speech, child pornography etc.  It is about balancing free speech with other values and rights society wishes to defend.

What is often missing, however, is an understanding that the context is sometimes as relevant as the words themselves. I personally have no problem with “Racist Tram Woman” expressing her views about immigration on a YouTube video. I’d probably listen for a bit, switch off and feel pity that someone has so much hatred.  No harm done: she is entitled to her views and I chose to listen. However, I do have an issue when the same words are directed at specific people on public transport. Their right not to feel threatened, to a quiet journey and to not be racially abused in front of their children conflicts with her right to express her views. The place and context are highly relevant. Similarly, shout “fire” at me in a soggy English field and I’d look round and not be alarmed, but in a crowded room I can well see why your right should be restricted. 

Fortunately most people realise that just because a right exists, doesn't mean it is must be exercised it in all contexts at all times.  I don’t need the law to dictate to me that I shouldn’t make cancer jokes to someone whose mother died of cancer. I inherently see the harm in that, even if I “have the right” to do so. Like most people in society, I try to exercise my rights mindful of others.

The problem comes when a minority of people use their speech to deliberately conflict with other people’s rights. Westboro Baptist Church is famous for picketing soldiers’ funerals with “God Hates Fags” signs. They believe God is punishing America by the deaths for its “gay tolerance”.  This led in August to President Obama’s signing a federal law that prohibited protests near military funerals. A Californian law was also signed this week that prevents protests within 300 feet of all funerals (Aids victims’ families have also been targeted).  

Free speech is the absolute cornerstone of a healthy, democratic society and restrictions on it must be limited and for good reason.  The above laws attempt to balance First Amendment rights with the rights of others to privacy and dignity, in the specific very upsetting context of a funeral. They permit the Westboro Baptists to express their views, but do not allow them to do so in a particular, limited place.

With this example in mind, we return to anti-abortion groups.  I do not agree with 40 Days that a woman may possess “evil demons that must be cast out”, but if they wish to “educate about abortion” on the internet, on street corners, in newspapers or in their churches, they should feel free. If they wish to change our abortion laws, they should march, lobby and bring the issue to politicians’ attention.  They could do this far more effectively in Westminster than outside an NHS hospital in Southampton.  If they truly believe that prayer and fasting will bring an end to abortion, they are welcome to organise vigils entirely free of food in any number of venues.  They presumably need not be outside clinics for an omnipresent God to hear them.

They are, of course, however highly disingenuous about their intentions.  They are groups that seek to bring about the end of abortion by influencing individuals in the difficult and sometimes deeply traumatic position of an unwanted pregnancy. They protest in front of clinics. It is hard to view their actions as not being direct intimidation. Their aims are quite transparent: to scare women off from having terminations and to close down services offering them.

We are faced again with a balancing act. There’s the wider social interest in protecting free speech, and the two sets of individual conflicting rights: the protestors who want to impose their personal values; and the rights of potentially vulnerable women to have privacy, access entirely legal services, and not feel threatened. A law that moves their vigils away from the doors of clinics undoubtedly involves a limited restriction on free speech. The protestors are still free to express their views, just not in a specific context, where it is likely to deliberately impinge on the rights of others. As such I’m clear where the balance rests for me, just as I’m clear that US-style anti-abortion tactics are here to stay in this country.

Pro-life protestor in the US. Credit: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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Caroline Lucas: The Prime Minister's narrow focus risks our security

Military force may sometimes be necessary. But resorting to bombs and bullets comes at a high price to those caught up in conflicts abroad and, all too often, to the future security of people across the world.

The protection of national security is the first duty of any government. In the dangerous world in which we live -where threats range from terrorist attacks, to public health emergencies and extreme weather events – we all want to feel safe in the knowledge that the government is acting in our best interests.

David Cameron’s speech yesterday marked a change in tone in this government’s defence policies. The MOD is emerging from the imposition of austerity long before other departments as ministers plan to spend £178bn on buying and maintaining military hardware over the next decade.

There is no easy solution to the threats facing Britain, or the conflicts raging across the world, but the tone of Cameron’s announcement – and his commitment to hiking up spending on defence hardware- suggests that his government is focussing far more on the military solutions to these serious challenges, rather than preventing them occurring in the first place.

Perhaps Cameron could have started his review by examining how Britain’s arms trade plays a role in conflict across the world. British military industries annually produce over $45 billion (about £30 billion) worth of arms. We sell weapons and other restricted technologies to repressive regimes across the world, from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to Kazakhstan and China. Furthermore Britain has sent 200 personnel in Loan Service teams in seven countries: Brunei, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates – helping to train and educate the armed forces of those countries.  Any true review of our security should certainly have looked closely at the effects of our arms industry- and the assistance we’re giving to powers in some of the most unstable regions on earth.

At the heart of the defence review is a commitment to what Cameron calls Britain’s “ultimate insurance policy as a nation’ – the so-called “independent nuclear deterrent”. The fact remains that our nuclear arsenal is neither “independent” – it relies on technology and leased missiles from the USA, nor is it a deterrent. As a group of senior military officers, including General Lord Ramsbotham and the former head of the armed forces Field Marshal Lord Bramall wrote in a letter to the Times “Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face or are likely to face, particularly international terrorism.”

The cold truth is that France’s nuclear weapons didn’t protect Parisians against Isis terrorists, and our own nuclear weapons cannot be claimed to make us safer than Germany, Spain or Italy. The unending commitment to these weapons, despite the spiralling costs involved and the flimsy evidence in their favour, seems to be closer linked to international grandstanding than it does our national security. Likewise the Government’s further investment in drones, should be looked at closely, with former defence chiefs in the USA having spoken against these deadly pilotless aircraft and describing their use as a “failed strategy” which has further radicalised populations in the Middle East. A serious review of our defence strategy should have looked at the possibility of alternatives to nuclear proliferation and closely investigated the effectiveness of drones.

Similarly the conclusions of the review seem lacking when it came to considering diplomacy as a solution to international conflict. The Foreign Office, a tiny department in terms of cost, is squeezed between Defence and the (thankfully protected) Department for International Development. The FCO has already seen its budget squeezed since 2010, and is set for more cuts in tomorrow’s spending review. Officials in the department are warning that further cuts could imperil the UK’s diplomatic capacity. It seems somewhat perverse that that Government is ramping up spending on our military – while cutting back on the department which aims to protect national security by stopping disputes descending into war. 

In the government’s SDSR document they categories overseas and domestic threats into three tiers. It’s striking that alongside “terrorism” and “international military conflict” in Tier One is the increasing risk of “major natural hazards”, with severe flooding given as an example. To counteract this threat the government has pledged to increase climate finance to developing countries by at least 50 per cent, rising to £5.8 billion over five years. The recognition of the need for that investment is positive but– like the continual stream of ministerial warm words on climate change – their bold statements are being undermined by their action at home.

This government has cut support for solar and wind, pushed ahead with fracking and pledged to spend vast sums on an outdated and outrageously expensive nuclear power station owned in part by the Chinese state. A real grasp of national security must mean taking the action needed on the looming threat of energy insecurity and climate change, as well as the menace of terrorism on our streets.

Military force may sometimes be necessary. But resorting to bombs and bullets comes at a high price to those caught up in conflicts abroad and, all too often, to the future security of people across the world. It’s crucial we do not allow the barbarous acts carried out on the streets of Paris, in the skies above Egypt, the beaches of Tunisia or the hotels of Mali to cloud our judgement about what makes us safer and more secure in the long term.  And we must ensure that any discussion of defence priorities is broadened to pay far more attention to the causes of war, conflict and insecurity. Security must always be our first priority, but using military action to achieve that safety must, ultimately, always be a last resort.  

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.