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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With the Greek summer at an end, the refugee crisis is just beginning

Refugee camps are battling floods – and even arson. With each passing day, the chances of a fatal incident increase.

The Greek summer came to an abrupt end at the start of September. Nowhere was spared the storms or the floods. At the Katsikas refugee camp, near the north-western city of Ioannina, the effects were dramatic. The site, formerly a military airport, flooded. The gravel turned to mud, swamping the floors of tents that were completely unsuitable for this terrain or weather.

Hundreds of people were relocated to hotels in the city. Officials from the municipality and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees scrambled to find families suitable shelter. A former orphanage on the outskirts of the city was supposed to have been renovated to house the refugees, but bureaucracy has held up the work.

Autumn falls heavily in the western region of Epirus. The danger of refugees being caught outside is real.

“We all know that when the morning fog from the lake [of Ioannina] comes in, the tents will rot away,” Filipos Filios, a former mayor of the town and now the co-ordinator between the state and the charities in the region, tells me. “They [Europe] need to relocate 20,000 people from Greece. That would have solved pretty much all of our problems. Instead, they’ve taken 3,000.”

Around Epirus, the facilities available to refugees are in good shape. Empty civil-service buildings have been repurposed to host families or single people separately. Special measures are in place for Yazidi refugees, who are in danger from others in the camps. As at the other centres across Greece, however, the problems here are not organisational.

“We have 500 people living in tents with bathrooms available, grills and cleaners, with a fully stocked food storage space and doctors always present. There’s even a centre for creative activities for the children,” Filios says. “It’s the very existence of the camp, and the need for more like it, that is the difficulty.”

On 19 September, tents at the overcrowded Moria detention centre on the island of Lesbos were set on fire. False rumours had been circulating that large numbers of Afghans were about to be sent to Turkey. Four thousand people were evacuated and a night of anguish followed. Refugees slept on the streets and local people, who oppose the presence of the camp, seized the opportunity to attack refugees and activists.

The Greek far right, led by followers of the Golden Dawn party, is stirring up anti-refugee sentiment. Attacks on journalists on Lesbos and the nearby island of Chios have become more frequent. There is talk of vigilante-style citizen patrols around the camps, staffed by residents worried about their livelihoods.

During an anti-refugee demonstration in Chios on 14 September, Ioannis Stevis, the editor of the Astraparis news website, was attacked.

“No trouble had started when the representative of Golden Dawn attacked me,” he told me. “The invitation [to march] wasn’t from the far right, but the direction of the demo once there was very specific; they had the upper hand. Some who had gone in good faith left when they heard chants like ‘Greece of Christian Greeks’.”

The march in Chios took a nasty turn when extreme elements headed to the Vial refugee camp. There, they were confronted by riot police. The refugees also fought back, throwing stones at the marchers from inside the camp.

“There was no plan to attack the camp and not everybody followed that march,” Stevis says. “We have 3,700 people here in inadequate conditions, and there is some small-scale delinquency – we can’t hide that. But there are people who try to magnify that. There definitely is a desire for citizen patrols, and not just from the far right. Especially in the village near the camp, people want to organise without being [associated with the] far right.”

With every passing day, the chances of a fatal incident increase. It has become clear that the relocation programme, designed to distribute refugees proportionally across European Union member countries according to population, is not working. These refugees are now stuck in Greece. Mere dozens leave every month for other EU countries, and fewer still depart for Turkey.

The rumours that they will be sent back to the places they have fled are no longer just rumours. On 5 October the EU and Afghanistan announced an agreement to repatriate Afghans who have been turned down for asylum. EU data shows that in 2015, 213,000 Afghans arrived in Europe, and 176,900 of those claimed asylum. More than 50 per cent of these applications were rejected. Later, a leaked memo from the negotiations showed that Afghanistan was threatened with a reduction in aid if the country did not commit to accepting at least 80,000 returning refugees.

What does all of this mean in the camps? It is the most vulnerable refugees to whom we must look to understand.

At the Moria detention centre on Lesbos, four teenagers have been arrested for allegedly gang-raping an unaccompanied 16-year-old Pakistani boy. The actions of these children, who are perhaps the ones receiving the most direct support, expose how stretched and inadequate the system is.

Even for unaccompanied children, the focus of much international attention, conditions are terrible. Officials have been saying for months that the Moria camp, which has no private rooms or locks on its doors, is unsuitable for children. An activist there, who didn’t want to be named in order to protect their work, told me that they had witnessed a teenage girl being confined in the same space as 80 boys for weeks on end.

Back at the Katsikas camp, autumn is settling in. Rain, humidity and cold have replaced the warm summer days. There is word that this camp and the others like it might soon be evacuated permanently, though there is no hint where the people might go. If they are deported to the war-torn countries they have escaped, as the EU wishes, there is little to prevent them making the journey back here. They are desperate, and many are barely surviving. Yet the message from the EU governments is clear: we’re hoping they won’t make it. 

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge