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Artillery Row

Baby steps

The Government won’t ban pro-life campaigners from abortion clinics

Earlier this week Sir Edward Leigh MP praised the government for whipping against an amendment in the House of Commons that sought to introduce censorship zones around abortion clinics. He tweeted that they were: “standing firm for the right to free speech and allowing peaceful pro-life vigils outside abortion clinics.” 

It’s a welcome and strong stance on the significant “buffer zones” issue that has had little media attention, but really sits at the heart of the free speech debate.  For many, free speech is easy to support until we’re faced with a person with whom we disagree. Thankfully the Government passed with flying colours last night. But free speech campaigners can’t rest just yet.

The “censorship zones” issue has been a difficult one for some audiences to digest. Few can relate to the niche trials of a pro-life street counsellor

Pro-abortion activists have been pushing throughout the past few years for a designated zone to be put in place in the area surrounding every abortion centre, which would ban offers of help or even silent prayer from pro-life counsellors. So far, the commitments that the government has made to free speech have been strong, yet reasonably safe. A comfortable majority of society can probably agree that universities should be protected as havens of free speech and debate, and so the Tory government’s resolve of the issue with the upcoming “free speech champion” — alongside the other current proposals from the Department for Education to be debated — has enjoyed relatively smooth sailing during the ideation period. Outside of direct government influence, clear lines have been drawn recently around the right to speak freely on feminist ideas. Maya Forstater’s historic win proved the right to hold down a job while holding a gender-critical opinion with equal grasp. Maya faced severe backlash, without doubt — but she also found friends in taking her challenge forward, famously including the formidable JK Rowling and allies from groups such as the LGB Alliance.  

Perhaps these emerging speech successes in the parliament and the public square are down to familiarity. Many of us can imagine ourselves as an opinionated student ready to put the world to rights, or relate to Maya’s struggle of being a woman shut down simply for sharing her opinion. But the “censorship zones” issue has been a difficult one for some audiences to digest. Few can relate to the niche trials of a pro-life street counsellor.

Pro-life groups who operate outside abortion facilities are not popular at present. It is not difficult to see why. Often portrayed as the UK’s answer to Westboro Baptist, they’ve gained a reputation as judgmental ideologues brandishing rosary beads. In reality, this  portrayal is false. Such tactics would hardly assist today’s groups in their stated goal — to support and empower women to “choose life”. Groups like The Good Counsel Network in London, who have been forcibly censored and banned from their charitable work by local councils, come nowhere near the crazed, chanting stereotype that some expect. They offer emotional, financial and material support to women who, given the choice, would keep their babies if they knew that somebody could help. The evidential basis for defining offers of help as “harassment” is paltry. The former Home Secretary and now newly-appointed Health Secretary Sajid Javid rejected a demand for a ban in 2018, declaring that it would be “disproportionate” given that upsetting incidents involving pro-life volunteers were “rare”. There was already existing legislation, he said — such as the Public Order Act 1986 — in place that restricted protest activities which caused harm to others. 

No one working for a cause can rule out anomalies: there is not a movement in history — charitable, activist, or otherwise — which has been free from marginal extremists ready to poison the well. But some light reflection prompts the realisation that, of course, harassment is already illegal. That being the case, we are entitled to ask why some have been so insistent on further legal clampdowns on offers of prayer and support.

Ironically, in the name of being “pro-choice”, a buffer zone would have stripped Alina of the choice that she wanted to make

The amendment to introduce censorship zones rode on the back of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill — an astonishing affront to free speech that stands in stark juxtaposition to the ethos behind university protections and to the principles of Maya’s case. This bill, introduced by Priti Patel earlier on this year, seeks to widen a 25-year-old law which allows public demonstrations to be restricted only when serious public disorder, damage, or serious disruption is caused. The new proposals give the police much wider-ranging powers, including the authority to stop people assembling if the noise level either intimidates local people or “may cause [people] to suffer serious unease, alarm or distress” and indict the speakers. In other words, if you come across as irritating, you may be handcuffed.  

Despite lawyers testifying to parliament in April that this bill could infringe human rights law and have a chilling impact on free speech and free assembly, it was included in the Queen’s Speech to parliament in May by way of confirmation that the government is committed to expanding police powers, and it is making its way through parliament as we speak. 

Thanks undoubtedly to the government’s decision to whip the vote on Monday night, the amendment to the PCSC Bill, which would have specifically removed prayer and help from women at a time of vulnerability, was withdrawn. It’s a relief not only to pro-life counsellors, but to women like Alina Dulgheriu. She took Ealing Council through the courts last year in defense of the pro-life women outside her local abortion centre who had supported her to keep her baby during her hour of need. Ironically, in the name of being “pro-choice”, a buffer zone would have stripped Alina of the choice that she wanted to make. The failure of the amendment is a win for women in the same situation today. But with the vague and dangerous wording of the PCSC Bill as a whole still in play, free speech promises for those with “unpopular” views may still prove to simply to be empty words.

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