Right to protest, or just plain wrong?
Anti-abortionists should have absolute freedom of speech. But that doesn’t mean they can do ‘pavement counselling’ outside abortion clinics.
On Tuesday 11 September, the abortion provider British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) hosted an open public debate in Conway Hall, London to discuss what might be considered conflicting rights: freedom of speech, freedom to protest, freedom to provide services, and freedom to exercise reproductive choice. The debate, attended by almost 300 people, took place against a background of intensifying protests at UK abortion clinics by anti-choice activists, and a growing backlash against them by those who support women’s choice to end a pregnancy. As a long-standing defender of the principle of freedom of speech, and as the current chief executive of bpas, whose clinics are the main targets of protests, Ann Furedi admitted that the issues were challenging. Here’s what she said.
British anti-abortion protests are nothing like those reported in the US, where on occasion abortion clinics have become battlegrounds for hundreds of protesters. In Britain, doctors are not shot; women are not physically obstructed from entering the clinic.
The protests are not large or conspicuously aggressive. Typically, they involve several people who identify pregnant women approaching the abortion clinic with a view to persuading them out of their decision. They try to give them leaflets explaining what they believe to be the ‘true’ (and hidden) risks of abortion and they want to explain why it’s wrong for a woman to kill her baby. Sometimes they try to give the women plastic fetuses to show what the ‘unborn baby’ looks like. On occasion, they hand out knitted baby-bootees. Some groups of protesters display large pictures of dismembered aborted fetuses, others display pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They do not pose a significant threat to the provision of abortion services. They do not close clinics. But the object is clear: to stop the abortion that the woman is seeking.
When the organiser of several protests, including those in Brighton that have been subject to unsuccessful police prosecution, was asked why he insisted on demonstrating outside a clinic and why he stopped women he thought were seeking abortion care, his answer was clear: the point of the action was to stop ‘the killing’.
The clinic protesters see themselves as the last line of defence for the unborn child and the last chance for a woman to be told the truth that will be concealed from her by clinic staff intent on encouraging the abortion. They describe themselves as ‘pavement counsellors’. For years, the protests have been ignored by clients and tolerated by providers. However, over the last year – perhaps egged on by ill-informed parliamentary discussion about the inadequacy of abortion counselling - the interference with women entering clinics has increased, and has provoked an important discussion about whether restrictions on protest can be justified and whether freedom of speech can be claimed by the protesters.
In 2001, when the Pro-Life Alliance produced a party election broadcast that included graphic images from a late-gestation abortion, I supported their right to broadcast it at peak time on national TV. In an article published in LM magazine, ‘Why we must defend vile scum’, I argued that activists should be able to express their views in whichever way they think fit. We should be able to hear their argument and judge them on its merits. Freedom of speech matters; it should be held as an inviolable principle.
For those of us who uphold a commitment to personal autonomy, freedom is a core value. We may accept that in the sphere of action, freedom is constrained; we can only claim freedom to do anything that does not impinge on others. But freedom of speech must be absolute. The ability to express what we think – through words or images – is how we claim what we are as individuals. To take away our right to express our thoughts, our right to speak out, is to undermine our individual selves. Even when we cannot express our autonomy in action, we can express our autonomy through our words.
There are a host of additional reasons why freedom of speech is good and should be encouraged. We need to hear our opponents’ arguments to test and develop our own, and we gain more than we lose by respecting this principle. But regardless of its benefit, we should see it as valuable in itself and essential for the realisation of the moral integrity of the person that is at the core of concern for individual autonomy.
So, can protesters outside an abortion clinic, trying to engage in pavement counselling with women who don’t want to be counselled, claim they are exercising their right to freedom of speech? And can they claim that handing pictures of dismembered aborted fetuses to women attending an abortion appointment is their freedom of expression? If we defend the right to broadcast pictures on TV, can we question their right to hand those pictures to a specific woman on her way to treatment?
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My argument is this: freedom to say anything is not the same as the freedom to speak on any occasion or in any situation. Freedom of speech does not grant a freedom to say anything to any person, at any time and in any place. To reduce the concept of ‘freedom of speech’ to the ‘use of language’ is to empty it of any meaningful content.
Those of us who advocate freedom of speech are concerned with the expression of opinions. The freedom that concerns us is the freedom to state a view with the sole purpose of being understood, and to persuade others that we are right. To deny someone the chance to state their views to a woman entering a clinic with the aim of persuading her to reconsider her abortion choice is no more a denial of freedom of speech than hecklers are denied the right to freedom of speech when they are ejected from a public meeting.
The attempt to deter a woman from entering a clinic – by use of words or force as an obstacle – is an action designed to undermine her capacity for decision-making. It is an assault on her autonomy.
It would be more accurate (and honest) for the anti-abortion pavement counsellors prevented from hindering bpas clients from freely entering clinics to claim that it is their freedom to protest that is being undermined. And so it is. While the protesters could enjoy their freedom to speak against abortion elsewhere, the argument loses its function of protest when it is relocated. Its intention (to save the fetus from death by dissuading the woman from abortion) is thwarted.
How society draws the boundaries of acceptable protest actions is not a matter of first-order principles, as freedom of speech is, but rather something to be negotiated. The right to protest, which is the right to act upon one’s beliefs, should be protected insofar as it does not harm the capacity for the autonomous behaviour of others. In a climate where so much expression is forbidden, and so many voices are gagged, we should aspire to tolerance until confronted with the intolerable – recognising that this is a matter of judgement.
But tolerance can coexist with judgement. And I judge that verbal or physical protests at clinics are just plain wrong.
If they are intended to pursue an argument about abortion, they are misguided. Women who attend bpas clinics do not do so to demonstrate their moral or political views about abortion; they do so to obtain a practical resolution to a personal problem. Many would probably agree with the protesters that abortion is wrong in principle, but would say that the decision to end their pregnancy is right for them.
These women in this place, at this time, are not a legitimate target-audience for debate and discussion. This is not because pregnant women are especially vulnerable or susceptible to pressure, or that the protesters are aggressive bullies. It simply recognises that people entering an abortion clinic are looking for clinical care, not looking for an argument.
If the purpose of the protest is to impede and interfere with an individual woman’s abortion decision, then it represents an intolerable assault on a person’s autonomy – and the protesters must surely take the consequences, including assaults from the law or from offended individuals. They may see it as their mission to stop the abortions, but they will be faced by those of us who have a mission to stop them stopping women from exercising their reproductive choice.
Abortion clinics are not political theatre. The women who attend them, and the staff who care for them, are no one’s political props. Nothing should be unsayable. No image should be unshowable. But that does not mean words or images are ‘protected’ forms of activity to be invoked at any time to an instrumental end.
Ann Furedi is chief executive of bpas, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
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Ceri Dingle, 20 September 2012 21:33
Ann raises very vital points and it is evident that a degradation of the purpose and importance of free speech is at play here and anti-abortionists are hiding behind it. No-one is in fact stopping them speaking, debating, writing or discussing their anti-women views and it is because they have not won the public over they see fit to tackle individual women seeking treatment as the last chance to save a potential life at the expense of the women’s life and needs. I concur with Ann too that this is rather about the right to protest. If anti-abortionists want to spout their prejudice we should uphold their right to do so and Ann and Bpas should similarly be supported to tell them where to go. Telling someone to get lost or refusing to hear them out is not denying them freedom of speech it is a practical articulation or action born of your profound disagreement with them. Supporting freedom of speech has never been about supporting acts of protest as an absolute or individual harassment in general as that will always depend upon whose side you are on and we should encourage taking sides. The content, in other words, matters. Free speech, I believe, is foundational for democracy but we all tell people all the time to shut up or go away, I’m sure. That is not denying them free speech it’s because they are really annoying and talking drivel. Stopping a racist for example from harassing someone verbally or physically by telling them to shut up, is not stopping their ‘right to free speech’ it is siding with the recipient of their bile. Stopping an anti-abortionist from carrying on is no different. There are plenty of people I would not invite into my home to peddle views I vehemently disagree with, or to work with our Citizen TV channel WORLDbytes or to volunteer with our charity WORLDwrite. That is not preventing their ‘Freedom of speech’ it is taking sides and organising against them to fortify our own ideas. The only line I would draw is calling on the law, police or state or any bureaucracy in general to make and enforce those decisions as that deference to the state does weaken us all. Sadly we have seen that deference all too clearly in the Sarah Catt case, where the silence of the pro-choice lobby is sadly deafening. The silent endorsement of the state’s right to lock up a woman for a self-induced late abortion is frankly obscene. I would happily harass that judge myself and would not consider it a case of denying his free speech or autonomy.
Harley Richardson, 21 September 2012 14:39
Very interesting article and I’m also grateful to Ceri for attempting to tease out the distinction made by Ann between freedom to speech and the expression of that freedom in practice. I think I agree with most of what Ceri says, although I’m having trouble with the part about ignoring people because they’re talking drivel. Of course we all do that in day-to-day life, ignoring drunks who try to accost us in the street being an extreme example. But in terms of politics, isn’t that the same argument used in the climate change debate, where both sides have convinced themselves that the other side is being irrational and so their arguments should be ignored rather than engaged with? Or the more formal version where certain scientists have argued that only peer reviewed criticisms should be responded to because, I guess, the rest are ‘drivel’.
Stuart Waiton, 21 September 2012 18:08
This article is also interesting in terms of the ‘free speech’ discussion in football. As here again we have a situation that is not about free speech as such - as there is no idea or argument taking place. Perhaps free expression is a better way to discuss football fans’ ‘offensive’ behaviour.
Julie Sullivan, 23 September 2012 00:09
“How society draws the boundaries of acceptable protest actions is not a matter of first-order principles, as freedom of speech is, but rather something to be negotiated. The right to protest, which is the right to act upon one’s beliefs, should be protected insofar as it does not harm the capacity for the autonomous behaviour of others.”
I think what Ann is referring to here is what J. S. Mill called the ‘nuisance’ principle. Most people know about the ‘harm’ principle - do what you want so long as it causes no physical harm to others.
Not that we should use ‘On Liberty’ as a bible or anything, but it’s a pretty clear and useful guide to consistent free speech.
Here’s the ‘harm’ and ‘nuisance’ principles spelled out by Mill;
“No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions…Acts of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavorable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind. The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.”
I discovered that the idea of the ‘nuisance’ principle is important when I was arguing that free speech is a binary with someone. I realized the idea is a valuable one because not only does it make a distinction between the right to free speech and the right to protest (which I was then unclear about), but because it really underlines that (like Ceri says) it is the *content* of speech that we are interested in when we uphold the idea of free speech being a binary (either everyone has it or no-one does). When the content is immaterial, ‘speech’ becomes an action, not words - i.e. someone shouting ‘fire’ in the proverbial crowded theatre is a disruptive *action* as it doesn’t matter what the person about to be kicked out would be shouting (assuming, of course, there was no fire).
Here’s one of the examples I gave in my argument:
“Q: Westboro Baptist Church are standing by the side of the road holding up their vile placards, which are very offensive to the beliefs of gays, women, people with cancer and Jews. If they are arrested because of this is this a violation of their freedom of speech?
A: Yes. You cannot truly support freedom of speech unless it’s for everybody.
Note however that if they attend a funeral and physically obstruct mourners, or, again, chant slogans that make it difficult to hold the funeral service, this is being a nuisance (and would be whatever they were ‘campaigning’ about) and therefore it is perfectly consistent with the upholding of the value of freedom of speech to forcibly remove them (in addition, they would also be restricting/obstructing the mourners’ right to mourn, which is a violation of the _mourners’_ rights to practice their beliefs).”
How far should this take us? Personally, I would trust Ann’s considerable experience as both a supporter of free speech and pro-choice to decide in the circumstances she raised. If the protestors were trying to slow women down by talking to them, or physically disrupt their attendance at the clinic or were following them inside, that is a clear violation of their own rights to act according to their own personal judgement (harassment, being a nuisance). If the protestors are just peacefully holding up placards, shouting a bit, or handing out nasty leaflets though I think we would have to let them do that.
As an aside, I thought this was really interesting:
“Many would probably agree with the protesters that abortion is wrong in principle, but would say that the decision to end their pregnancy is right for them.”
I’m interested in knowing how we can account for this point, raised by Ann, that women seeking an abortion do not make political judgements as a consequence. Having recognized that it is a personal decision in their own case, why is it difficult for them to see that it is also a personal decision in everyone’s case? I.e, why would they conclude that it is ‘wrong in principle’? After all, no-one has an abortion because it’s a fun thing to do. Are they tapping in to some prejudice that an abortion is the result of ‘carelessness’?