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Compassion Or Coercion: Should Protesting Outside Abortion Clinics Be Punishable By Law?

There is considerable controversy over whether individuals should be allowed to protest outside abortion clinics. Is it a form of unnecessary, coercive harassment? Are these people exercising their right to share an opinion when holding up their placards and handing out their pamphlets? This might be the kind of spectacle you envision occurring somewhere in America’s southern Bible Belt region but as it happens, it is a regular occurrence outside abortion clinics in the UK, too. Last year, an amendment to the Public Order Act introduced 150-metre buffer zones around spaces that provide abortion services, while also making it illegal to intimidate or harass those accessing said services within that specific area. Now, government ministers are being accused of watering down the rules regarding these safe zones. 

The vast majority of abortion protesters consider themselves to be ‘pro-life’, which is a stance that typically stems from religious beliefs regarding the sanctity of life. Abortion, assisted suicide and the death penalty are hot topics that are likely to be disagreeable to these protesters; in their eyes, only God has the right to give and take a life. On the other side of the coin, feminist activists such as Marge Berer believe that women should not be stripped of their bodily autonomy, as it is their body and their choice as to whether they continue a pregnancy. Naturally, people who align themselves with the ‘pro-choice’ movement felt that the government’s recent guidance on abortion clinic safe access zones was peppered with hypocrisy and lack of compassion. Silent prayer, for example, is still permitted as it is not explicit harassment - approaching people accessing or providing abortion services, without ill intent, is also permissible. However, the guidance states that influencing a person’s decision to access abortion services, obstructing their access, or causing distress is a lawful offence. “The whole purpose of safe access zones around abortion clinics and services is to ensure that no one enters those zones apart from accessing the clinic or service as a patient, as a potential patient or as a service provider or employee; no one can prove (in the legal sense) what is in anyone else’s heads as regards their purpose in entering an open space,” says Berer. Having dedicated much of her life to the feminist agenda, she has been an advocate and author for abortion rights and sexual and reproductive health rights in the UK and internationally since 1976. “I have seen half a dozen anti-abortion people dressed in rags pretending to be like Biblical prophets kneeling on the ground across the street from one clinic in London, praying silently, for several hours. They don’t need to say or do more.” Activists argue that even when standing outside clinics and saying a silent prayer, the false virtues of the protestors still shine through; these actions, while seemingly harmless, still have the capacity to inflict emotional distress on those accessing or providing the services. Berer believes, “The message is loud and clear and their presence is threatening in itself.”   

Pro-lifers have been claiming censorship in response to the latest buffer zone guidance, asserting that it inhibits what they consider to be non-violent protesting; freedom of speech has become their defence. They believe that their buffer zone protests aren’t too dissimilar from street evangelism, as they too are spreading religious beliefs in the hopes of inspiring people to ‘do the right thing’. In these instances, they seek to evangelise women who are most likely at their most vulnerable and healthcare workers who are just trying to do their jobs. Still, the SPUC (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children) has expressed strong disappointment towards the regulations. In a statement to Inside The Box, the SPUC says, “Pro-life vigils are peaceful community-based gatherings that seek to offer support to women. Many women do reflect differently on their pregnancy when offered positive support. Pro-life vigils exist to try and ease those pressures for any women who might want to access the support that a vigil can offer.” Another issue that has arisen is how feasible it would be to manage the activity within the 150 metres surrounding the abortion clinics, and there is debate as to what counts as ‘unlawful’ behaviour that is worthy of being arrested or fined.  It has been suggested that these guidelines breach fundamental rights to freedom of religion, perhaps even criminalising compassion. The SPUC say that this is “An outrageous assault on civil liberties, by denying pregnant women the opportunity to learn about the practical help available.” However, Berer explains, “Removing people who are showing they are anti-abortion in any way from the safe access zone is the main goal, as often as necessary.” 

With an issue as controversial as this, perhaps it is nearly impossible for the government to create clear and consistent guidelines; there is ambiguity around what exactly classifies as harassment, and ultimately, the decision is left in the hands of local police. The SPUC holds the view that “imposing buffer zone legislation means that ordinary citizens will be branded criminals and subject to crippling financial penalties for witnessing peacefully and offering help to women in need.” It is also arguable that local police forces are stretched enough as it is. To simplify matters, Berer says, “The signage should be brief and clear – e.g. ‘Anti-abortion activity or speech or information of any kind is prohibited in this area.’ with a simple map indicating the parameters of the designated space. I believe it should be the responsibility of the government to create a ‘universal’ weather-repellent sign that is developed and printed/manufactured for use across the country. In addition, the public should be informed of this new law via social media, and national and local news, and perhaps sent to all anti-abortion organisations for them to be directed to share it with their members so that they are fully aware of its existence.” 

Despite what pro-lifers may think, activists like Berer would argue that they are not crying out for vengeance, or praying for the downfall and arrest of every protester - they are protecting the well-being and rights of women and healthcare workers. 


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