Ealing and Portsmouth councils are planning to use Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) to ban anti-abortion protests outside abortion clinics. Ealing has approved the plan, and will start consulting at the end of January.
It certainly appears that some of these protesters are guilty of harassment, with acts including blocking people’s paths, trespassing on clinic property, filming women entering the clinic, and displaying offensive imagery. However, this does not mean that PSPOs should be used to create ‘buffer zones’, which would criminalise protests or gatherings per se within a certain distance of the clinic.
The proposed PSPOs would create a sort of ‘no-protest zone’, within which gatherings are either banned or severely restricted. This creates a worrying precedent. In effect, an organisation is establishing a private claim over a public street, with the right to specify the activities that may occur within it. In principle, there is no reason why this could not be applied to organisations of all kinds, such as companies, or government departments, who may also wish to be protected from critics gathering outside their buildings. (Of course, Parliament has already established its own no-protest ‘buffer zone’ in Parliament Square, and this limitation runs contrary to free speech and freedom of assembly.)
Where anti-abortion protesters commit acts of significant harassment, these acts are already criminal offences, under laws such as the offence of causing ‘harassment, alarm and distress’ in the 1986 Public Order Act. They should be prosecuted and held account for these offences, if evidence can be proven to a reasonable standard in a court of law. But when protesters are merely holding vigils, or handing out leaflets, which women are free to take or not, this should not be criminalised.
It is often said that these pro-life protesters should be protesting elsewhere; that they should be outside parliament, or in some other location, rather than outside a clinic; they should be making their case to politicians or some other audience. Abortion is a legal medical procedure, and women would not expect to be challenged while going to the doctor for other medical procedures.
There is something to these points. Yet the protesters, one imagines, are gathering at what they consider to be the coalface of the issue, the place where the sin (as they consider it) is taking place. They see abortion as an ethical matter, and they seek to persuade the woman who is about to undergo an abortion to do otherwise. It is here, to these people, that they want to make their case.
The Ealing group claims to offer financial support to women who choose to have the baby: it claims that some women are only seeking a termination for financial reasons, and that the group is currently paying accommodation for several dozen women who decided to go ahead to have the child. Whether this is entirely true or not, it suggests that the protesters are not merely seeking to abuse or infringe, but (as they see it) to help the women, albeit according to their set of values.
It is clear that the views of these protesters are out of touch with the majority of the population, and the law governing abortion. We have no sympathy for their view: we think that the decision to undergo an abortion is something that concerns the woman alone; it is her body, her life, and she should never be forced to have a baby she does not want.
We also recognise that, although this is a public street, the women are being targeted because of their private choice. They would be understandably hostile towards any attempts to interfere with, or induce guilt about, the decision they have made. It would be understandable if they told the protesters where to go, and they would be quite right to do so. The protesters don’t have a right to be listened to.
It is also understandable that the protests might be distressing for some of the women attending the clinic, and an added hassle for staff providing this vital public service to women. And yet, where the protesters’ actions do not meet the standard of a criminal offence, they should not be restricted.
The right to free speech includes not only the right to say certain things, but to try to say it to an audience of your choosing. When people are told where they must stand, and who they must appeal to, they do not have rights of free assembly, even if they are able to express the same words or opinions.
If we want a society where people can express their views freely, this may at times come with difficulty and even unpleasantness. The right to free expression is a matter of ‘freedom for the thought we hate’, and sometimes in places we hate too.
This is why we believe that the Ealing PSPO is wrong, and should be opposed.