Pro-life and pro abortion protestors demonstrate outside the supreme court in London. (Photo by Simon Dawson/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Challenging abortion shouldn’t be a crime

Shutting down pro-life protest restricts women’s freedom

After several thwarted attempts to pass such legislation, the Northern Ireland Assembly has finally voted to criminalise demonstrations outside abortion clinics. The Bill, forwarded by Green Party MLA Clare Bailey, will henceforth make it a criminal offence to “influenc[e]… a… person [seeking an abortion], whether directly or indirectly” within “safe access zones”.

Curiously, Bailey’s lust for clamping down on freedom of expression does not extend to the consistently bold tactics of environmental activists such as Extinction Rebellion, whom Bailey has publicly allied with. For Bailey and her ilk, it seems that the right to protest need only apply when it protects their particular ideological values.

Freedom of expression should only be restricted in extreme circumstances

This is the problem with so many contemporary appeals for censorship. Those calling for it rarely do so through appeal to an objective standard that can be consistently applied, but rather out of an appeal to the particular values that they, or their political or social grouping, hold dear. This isn’t principled activism; it’s power play. Under Northern Ireland’s new law, anyone within the “safe zone” demarcated around a given abortion facility who attempts to “influence” a person’s decision to have an abortion or not is worthy of a criminal offence.

Freedom of expression is non-negotiable. It is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society and should only be restricted in extreme, compelling circumstances such as slander, defamation or violent incitement — actions which, as a 2018 Government review into calls for such zones in England and Wales pointed out, are already criminalised in the UK, including Northern Ireland.

Moreover, if pro-choicers truly believe that the displaying of banners, distribution of leaflets, holding of prayer vigils, and even the offering of help by pro-life activists is an existential threat to women’s “safety”, surely the natural conclusion of their argument is that such expressions ought to be banned outright?

Why stop at the 100 or so metres that will likely constitute these so-called “safe access zones”? Why end these limits at the public expressions of said opinions; why not simply deem them thought crimes? Indeed, this law will set a chilling legal precedent for the restrictions on other opinions that challenge the status quo.

Outlawing offensive views makes martyrs of those who ‘risk’ expressing them

This law will criminalise views that most pro-choicers find objectionable and offensive, but is this not the very height of counter-productivity? Outlawing the expression of views we may find to be extreme simply makes martyrs of those who “risk” expressing them, a dynamic that massively deflects from the only true way to changing minds: education and rational debate.

As seventeenth century philosopher John Locke noted in the wake of Europe’s calamitous wars of religion, forcing ideological conformity can coerce outward obedience, but ultimately it cannot change people’s internal beliefs.

Likewise, Ella Whelan wrote last year that, “Pro-choicers will not win this battle by allowing the other side to pose as persecuted freedom-lovers.” If pro-choice activists are truly passionate about a woman’s right to choose, why risk emboldening the views of those who disagree?

This law courts not only political fallout, but personal strife. Let’s say I am a mother accompanying my pregnant daughter to an abortion clinic. Like most mothers, I love and care for my daughter and have her best interests at heart. I may feel that for various reasons my daughter is making the wrong decision in seeking an abortion, and that she will come to regret it.

I could be wrong or right, but in any case, it is hardly the business of the state whether I decide to express my feelings on this topic to my daughter. Under Bailey’s Bill not only will the right to disagree be erased for groups of protesting strangers, but for family members and friends who may express or even suggest that they harbour the “wrong” opinion within sight of an abortion clinic.

We cannot escape the fact that abortion rights are an issue in which the two main camps have fundamentally irreconcilable views. One side prioritises the choice of the mother over continuing her pregnancy. The opposing side prioritises the life of the unborn child, and thus views the termination of a pregnancy as an unjust killing. Coercing the silence of either side would not minimise this conflict, but would, by limiting its civil means of expression, needlessly exaggerate it.

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