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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Donald Trump's cartoon nuclear rhetoric draws on a culture of American jingoism

Senior Republicans avoided condemning Trump's incendiary speech, and some endorsed it. 

From recent headlines, it seems as though Donald Trump isn't content with his Emmy-by-proxy. The US president told the United Nations General Assembly this week: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Trump’s speech raised eyebrows for its bellicose tone, especially when contrasted with his predecessor’s endorsement of a war-averse approach. 

A widely circulated image of Trump's chief of staff John Kelly with his head in his hand might suggest that most listeners loathed the speech. But Trump said many outrageous things on the campaign trail and voters - at least a critical number of them - agreed. So how did his words go down at home? 

My contacts in international security were unwilling to go on the record condemning it. They were mainly Americans in their twenties, hoping for a government job one day, and fearful of saying anything that could be interpreted as "un-American".

The one person who would speak to me asked for their name to withheld. A former military analyst in the US Department of Defence, they told me that “the US has the military capability and legal responsibility to address threats to itself or allies". What Trump said, they suggested, should be seen in the context of the wider US institutions. "While Trump may have advocated for isolation in the past, the political and military forces he leads are built to enforce the adherence to international law and regional security," the former analyst said. "They provide a real counterweight to the bombast in Pyongyang.”

Trump's speech may have been colourful - his nickname for the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, "Rocket Man", is a reference to Elton John’s mid-Cold War musical hit – but the speech should be seen as yet another reassertion of US military dominance. North Korea may boast of its Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) development,  but its arsenal is simply not well-equipped enough to present the same existential threat to the US that the USSR did at its peak. 

Rather than lacking comprehension, the analyst said of the speech: “Trump's rhetoric is intended to galvanise recognition that the current rules based order is threatened by North Korea's actions”.

Trump’s jingoism is not unique amongst the current American elite. Back in 1983, in his book, The Wizards of Armageddon, the liberal journalist Fred Kaplan characterised the hawkish US military strategy as simply ejaculating combative statements without a long-term plan. Kaplan quoted Herman Kahn, one of the early nuclear strategists, who called one proposal targeting the USSR a “war orgasm”. 

The US Senate recently passed a defence policy bill to increase military spending to $700bn, which includes $8.5bn for missile defence purposes. Overtly catastrophic language, meanwhile, has long been a staple of US foreign policy debates. In 2015, Trump's rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Ted Cruz, made headlines when he vowed to carpet-bomb Isis until he found out "if sand can glow in the dark". While most leading Republicans chose to stay silent after Trump's speech, a few, such as Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, publicly endorsed the message. Cruz, despite the rivalry, was among them. 

On social media, the American public are vocally divided. Some called for Trump to be denounced for his inflammatory speech, but others tweeted #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. Even some Trump sceptics agreed that the North Korea “nuclear summer” needed to be kept in check.

By contrast, overseas listeners have perceived the speech, and this administration’s foreign policy, as unnecessarily incendiary. Matt Korda, a Canadian research assistant on strategic stability at the UK-based Centre for Science and Security Studies,  told me: “Kim Jong-un perceives his nuclear weapons to be the only thing guaranteeing his regime's survival”.

“He will never give them up, no matter how much Trump threatens him," Korda added. “On the contrary: Trump's threat to ‘totally destroy’ the entire country (including millions of innocent and oppressed civilians) will only tighten Kim's grip on his nuclear weapons”.

The effects of Trump’s speech are yet to fully play out, but it is clear that his words have rallied at least a section of American society, and rankled everyone else. The Donald may seem to be mirroring the culture of nuclear recklessness his North Korean opponent helped to create, but this is also the kind of hostile and hyperbolic rhetoric which fuelled his rise to power. In reality, once Trump’s unpleasant vernacular is decoded, he can be seen to be echoing the same global view that has long pervaded the collective American consciousness. Trump's speech was not addressed at his UN doubters, but rather at his domestic fan base and his allies in the South Pacific. This is not a shift in US foreign policy - it is tradition with a spray-tan.

 

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman