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
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt