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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The far right rises as the Nordic welfare model is tested to breaking point by immigration

Writing from Stockholm, the New Statesman’s editor observes how mass immigration has tested the old Scandinavian model of welfare capitalism.

In the summer of 1999 I was commissioned by a Scandinavian magazine to write about the completion of the longest road-and-rail link in Europe, connecting Denmark and Sweden across the Øresund strait at the gateway to the Baltic Sea. I was a guest at the ceremony, along with assorted Swedish and Danish royalty, at which the final girder of the concrete and steel-cable-stayed bridge was fitted into place.

It was a cold day but the mood was joyful. The Øresund Fixed Link symbolised the new Europe of open borders and free movement of people. There was much excitement about the creation of an economic zone centred on Copenhagen but incorporating Malmö and the university town of Lund in Sweden. The Øresund Bridge has since become an icon of Scandinavian culture, in part because of the success of the noirish television crime series The Bridge, starring the blank-eyed Sofia Helin as the Swedish police detective Saga Norén, which fetishises the structure in its brilliantly stylised opening credits.

Emergency measures

Last autumn, after Angela Merkel declared that Germany’s borders were open to Syrian refugees, it was across the Øresund that tens of thousands of desperate people began arriving in Sweden, straining the country’s habitual openness to incomers. They were arriving not just from Syria but from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea and elsewhere in Africa – sometimes as many as 10,000 a week. In 2015, 163,000 people registered for asylum in Sweden, including 36,000 unaccompanied children. Many others are presumed to have entered the country illegally. (The comparative figure registering for asylum in Germany was 1.2 million and in Denmark 25,000. David Cameron has pledged to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees in Britain by 2020.)

There was a sense last November that Stefan Löfven’s minority Social Democratic government was losing control of the situation. As a result, Sweden was forced to introduce emergency border controls, as well as security checks for those arriving across the bridge from Denmark. The rules of the Schengen passport-free area allow for such measures to be enacted in a crisis. Denmark responded by tightening border controls with Germany as fences and barriers were erected across Europe in an attempt to stem the flow of refugees heading north along the so-called western Balkan route.

Sweden’s Blair

To the outsider, Sweden no longer seems to be a country at ease with itself. Mass immigration has tested the old Scandinavian model of welfare capitalism to near breaking point and resentment is festering. “Immigration is now the number one issue facing our country,” Johan Forssell told me when we met at the Riksdag in Stockholm. He is a former chief of staff for Fredrik Reinfeldt, prime minister from 2006-14. As a former leader of the Moderate Party, Reinfeldt is a conservative, but, in his commitment to free markets and open borders, the politician he most resembles is Tony Blair. I was a guest at a lunch for Reinfeldt in London last autumn, and, as he defended his immigration policies, I was struck above all by his liberalism.

In August 2014, in a celebrated speech, he called on his fellow Swedes to “open their hearts” and “show tolerance” to immigrants and asylum-seekers. The speech was received with derision. It surely contributed to the defeat of the Moderate-led centre-right coalition in the general election in which the far-right Sweden Democrats, led by Jimmie Åkesson, recorded their best ever performance, winning 49 out of 349 parliamentary seats. “It was a brave speech, but Freddie didn’t prepare the people for it,” one senior Swedish politician said to me.

Editorial positions

One afternoon I visited Peter Wolodarski, the 38-year-old editor-in-chief of Sweden’s leading quality daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter (“Today’s News”), at his office in Stockholm. The son of a Polish-Jewish architect who came to Sweden in the 1960s, Wolodarski is highly influential: editor, columnist and television commentator, and an unapologetic liberal internationalist. He likened his politics to David Miliband’s. In the past, Dagens Nyheter, which is privately owned by the Bonnier family, supported the then-hegemonic Social Democrats but, reflecting the fluidity and shifting alliances of Swedish politics, it now pursues what it describes as an “independently liberal” editorial position.

Wolodarski, who used to edit the comment pages, is slim and energetic and speaks perfect English. We discussed the EU referendum in Britain, which alarmed and mystified him, and Islamist terror as well as the rise of the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats. Security at the Dagens Nyheter offices has been tightened considerably since the Charlie Hebdo massacre – Wolodarski’s paper as well as others in the group republished Charlie cartoons – and it has been reported that as many as 300 Swedish nationals are fighting for Isis in Syria. One Swede, Osama Krayem, is suspected of being part of the group that carried out the Brussels attacks in March. The Sweden Democrats have seized on this as further evidence of the failures of Nordic multiculturalism.

A refugee’s story

One morning I visited a refugee registration centre in Märsta in the northern suburbs. The people there were fleeing war or persecution. Each was waiting to discover where next they would be moved while their asylum application was processed.

One young, secular Muslim woman from Gambia told me she was escaping an arranged marriage (to her mother’s polygamous brother, who was in his sixties) and the horror of female genital mutilation. Articulate and frustrated, she wept as we talked. The next day, I received an email from her. She was now in a small town in the far north. “It is remote here and cold,” she wrote. And then she wished me a “safe return journey” to London.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred