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.

Ann Furedi

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Topics Politics

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.

The background

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.

The argument

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?

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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