Why anti-abortion protesters must Back Off

The CEO of bpas explains why buffer zones are needed outside abortion clinics.

Ann Furedi

Topics Politics

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The launch of the Back Off campaign by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) – designed to stop direct interference with women’s access to abortion clinics and to demand that the police defend women’s access to lawful medical services – has mobilised unprecedented public opposition to anti-abortion demonstrations at clinic entrances. There have been public statements of support from shadow ministers, and official backing from bodies including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the British Medical Association, the Labour Party, the Royal College of Midwives, and Mumsnet. In two weeks, more than 100,000 people signed a petition in support of the creation of ‘bubble zones’ around clinics, where anti-abortion protests would not be tolerated. A YouTube video of a pregnant woman telling protesters why she supported women’s access to abortion went viral, and for the first time local residents mobilised against protests outside clinics.

The Back Off campaign has demonstrated a public appeal that is rare for pro-choice advocacy. Abortion is generally regarded as a controversial issue. People may support abortion access but they would prefer it if women didn’t need it. The popular view of abortion is that it should be safe, legal and rare, and that to need an abortion is to be, well, somehow ‘dysfunctional’. ‘Good sex’ may no longer mean married sex, but it surely means ‘safe sex’ that is free from unintended consequences? Today, abortion for most people is not a sin, but it remains shameful – the shame being in ‘not planning’, ‘not being prepared’, ‘not being careful’. Abortion is, for the most part, seen as preventable, and to need it indicates failure.

Bpas has striven to correct that view by pointing out that, for most women, an unplanned pregnancy is as much a fact of life as a scrape on the car paintwork. However hard you try to be careful, sometimes it happens. Bpas is known for defending later abortion and our belief that abortion should be decriminalised. We obey the law to the letter, but we still say when we think it’s wrong. This has not made us popular with ministers. Indeed, our support of doctors ‘framed’ and accused of offering ‘sex-selection abortions’ gained us considerable vilification.

So why is Back Off so popular? And is it necessary?

It is true that the number of protesters at bpas clinics is vanishingly tiny in comparison with the type of demonstrations faced by our colleagues in the US. Abort67, one of the groups responsible for the protests, has few supporters and almost no political influence or significance. It is hugely unpopular even with mainstream anti-choice campaigners, who spend as much time trying to distance themselves from Abort67 as we spend trying to distance its protesters from our clinics.

An unfortunate, and predictable, consequence of the Back Off campaign is that it has probably made more people aware of Abort67’s existence. It has also allowed the demonstrators to play their own ‘victim card’ and to insist that they are being denied the right to freedom of speech and protest.

Another unfortunate and predictable consequence is that many in the media have been prone to present the women bpas is defending as ‘victims’ – firstly for needing abortion, secondly for facing bullying and harassment at the clinic’s entrance. This is just the image of women that bpas has fought hard to counter. In truth, most bpas clients are ordinary women in need of straightforward, simple clinical treatment in a place where their privacy and confidentiality is respected and they are answerable only to those who provide their care.

However, the Back Off campaign is a serious response to a significant problem.

Protest at abortion clinics is not new. For years, small groups of protesters have gathered to pray, sing hymns, distribute leaflets and display banners and model fetuses. Sometimes they have displayed pictures of mangled, dismembered fetuses that they claim are the products of abortion – they argue that this educates women who are ignorant of what an abortion involves.

But recently this activity has spread and intensified. It has taken on a form that is intolerable because it conflicts with the freedom of others – that is, with the freedom of women in need of lawful medical care to access a service privately and confidentially, and the freedom of bpas staff to provide that service without interference.

Women attending an abortion clinic should not have to face anyone whose intention is to interfere with them or engage with them. They should not need to face people on the street asking about their circumstances or decisions. They should especially not need to face individuals with banners, placards and cameras, determined to ‘counsel’ them about what an abortion involves. A clinic entrance is not a debating forum or a street theatre. Bpas clients are not seeking a political discussion about abortion with anyone; they are seeking advice or treatment from a provider that they have chosen, and they should be able to access that service without people arguing that their decision is wrong or right.

When things reach a point where women are caused stress and distress; where they feel they need to leave a clinic by a back entrance because they cannot face the protesters; when members of bpas staff feel they need to call the police to prevent protesters following them as they leave the clinic; when NHS practice managers feel they can no longer host bpas services in their centres – that is the point at which protest is no longer tolerable. That is when a turning point is reached – a point at which protest ceases to be about the freedom to promote a cause and becomes an attempt to intimidate patients and sabotage services organised for their care.

Traditionally, within the classical liberal tradition of John Stuart Mill, the right to protest was understood to be ‘contingent’, and as such is different to freedom of speech, which is ‘absolute’.

Freedom of speech, as properly understood (that is, the freedom to state one’s views for the purpose of being understood), cannot curtail the freedom of others because it impinges on no one but the speaker. It is sometimes described as ‘self-regarding’, in that its purpose is self-expression. For Mill, the premise for freedom of speech was ‘affirmation and respect for the individual’s moral agency and autonomy’ (1). In short, to take away someone’s ability to express their thoughts through speech was to deny them a means to express their internal contemplation – their inner life.

Understood in this way, freedom of speech gives you the freedom to state your views on abortion in whatever way you think best, but it does not accord you the right to state them to any specific person or in any specific place. The freedom is your self-expression, not to determine to whom you express yourself. This is why we can regard it as inviolable.

Freedom to protest is different. It can impede others’ rights and freedoms; indeed, that may be its very intention – and when it does, the question of whose freedom triumphs rests in the balance of a number of factors. The law may limit the right to protest by curbing access to certain areas; or brute force may impose limits, as was the case in clashes between fascists and anti-fascists in the 1930s, or between loyalists and republicans in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s – or, indeed, in a milder way by local residents outside the bpas clinic in Southwark in London recently.

Alternatively, one can try to resolve conflicts intellectually, by assessing which freedoms matter most. The problem of competing rights is hardly a new one. Arguably, it is at the heart of moral philosophy. For example, you could look at the clash of rights surrounding abortion clinic protests in this way:

Freedom of speech/expression: this freedom is self-regarding and absolute, but not relevant here, unless you interpret it as a right to say anything at anytime, anywhere, to anyone – which divorces it from the reason Mill and other liberals thought it was important and reduces it to the act of ‘saying’.

Freedom to protest: this does apply to the protesters, but this freedom is contingent, not inviolable.

Moral autonomy / bodily integrity: this freedom is self-regarding and absolute and in this case applies to the women seeking abortion, as I have discussed elsewhere. Moral autonomy also applies, it could be argued, to the protesters; but the determination of their actions – in essence to close the clinic – directly harms the women and their moral autonomy, so that does away with the protesters’ claim to exercise that right in this particular way.

Stripped down in this way, intellectually it is not hard to conclude that it is possible to uphold these campaigners’ freedom to protest, but to insist that they protest in a way that does not cause harm to others (by interfering in any way with women’s access to private and confidential care). The Back Off campaign for bubble zones in which anti-abortion protest is prohibited is a simple, straightforward and targeted way of doing this. Supporters of Abort67 and other groups can exercise their absolute freedom to express their views (which was never in doubt), and they can exercise their contingent freedom of protest somewhere else.

Resolving this issue practically and not just philosophically is more difficult, because the only thing we have recourse to is the law. We are loathe to call for the state to have more powers. On the contrary, many of us believe state powers extend far beyond where they should rightfully go, especially in the policing of behaviour. However, the activity at bpas clinics leaves us little choice but to demand that the state upholds women’s freedom to access lawful abortion. There is, after all, no other body able to sort out the protesters without itself risking the penalties of damage to persons and/or property.

Furthermore, there is a positive reason we should demand that the state step in. Abortion, within the terms of the Abortion Act 1967, is lawful and those who receive it or provide it should be subject to no more interference or sanction than anyone else receiving or providing medical treatment. Neither people seeking abortion nor those providing it should be called on to ‘tough it out’ and put up with protests.

When women say they are reduced to tears and feel unable to cope with the challenges made to them by protesters, when they say they feel vulnerable and distressed, this is not an expression of their weakness as women, nor is it evidence of the alleged awfulness of making abortion decisions. No, even the strongest among us can feel brittle and scared when we are about to undergo a medical procedure – even one that is not as emotionally loaded as abortion.

The actions of groups such as Abort67 challenge every notion of what is acceptable action in a clinical setting. Bpas clinic doors will stay open. We will defend our patients and our staff and we will defend the integrity of legal abortion services. We will continue to champion discussion and debate on abortion and issues that relate to it. We will defend the right to speech and protest and exercise it ourselves as we struggle to enable women to make their own reproductive choices.

Ann Furedi is the CEO of bpas, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

(1) See Frank Furedi, On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence, 2011

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Topics Politics


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