05 February 2018
Could measures to limit the freedom of anti-abortion protesters to stand outside abortion clinics be justified?
Maybe abortion protesters need to be reminded that there are other 'goods' involved argues Clifford Longley
Legal measures to limit the freedom of anti-abortion protesters to stand outside abortion clinics may, on balance, be justified. The Home Office and at least one local authority are consulting interested parties on whether to introduce such bans where appropriate. The right to protest and demonstrate is such a fundamental part of freedom of speech and indeed freedom of conscience, that any legal limitation on them must pass stringent tests. But I think the case here is a strong one.
Tolerance is an essential part of the social glue that holds society together. Tolerance means respecting those who are different from us, including those who think and act differently. Respect means leaving them space to do those different things, despite our disapproval.
I’m afraid it's one of the more narrowing features of the religious mind – and almost all those who take part in such protests are religiously motivated – to lack sympathy with those who don't share their beliefs. It is beyond the scope of their imagination to see the world as others see it.
This is how the situation looks from the anti-abortion picket line: those involved in abortion, those who have them and those who provide them, are killing unborn babies. Because they are doing something dreadfully and outrageously wrong, they are entitled to upset them by telling them so, and their feelings don't matter. They cannot demand respect. Holding up a placard with words or images which confront them with the true nature of what they do is bound to offend and cause distress. So is handing out leaflets with the same message, no matter how compassionately expressed. But that is the intention. It only goes to prove that the protests are working.
But maybe the abortion protesters need to be reminded that there are other goods involved, maybe even higher goods. Respect cuts both ways. With our singular history, Catholics in Great Britain have to regard tolerance as the primary social virtue, without which the practice of the other virtues – even the worship of God, for instance – can become difficult to the point of dangerous. We must treat others with the same respect with which we would expect to be treated ourselves, including by those who profoundly disagree with us.
The evidence shows that women who seek an abortion are almost always unhappy about it at the time. It is a very stressful experience. But they have concluded that in their case it is the lesser evil. And society has decided that pregnancy termination, to use the standard euphemism, is allowable in certain circumstances. I believe that suggests that society has an obligation to protect those involved from any further avoidable stress.
Anti-abortionists are entitled to campaign to change the law. They may not agree that it can ever be the lesser evil. But are they thereby entitled to harass, intimidate, embarrass, humiliate or otherwise cause distress to those who are exercising that legal right? And are they justified because some small percentage of those harassed or distressed are actually persuaded, in the process, to change their minds?
One further issue which is not strictly relevant to the legal argument concerns the use of prayer as part of a protest demonstration. In a quiet and dignified way no doubt, protesters who are Catholics like to say the rosary as they stand or kneel outside abortion clinics. It is true that the singing of popular hymns with a prayerful message such as John Newton's "Amazing Grace" played a powerful role in the Black civil rights protests in the United States. It was a display of solidarity in threatening situations, binding the protesters together spiritually for greater courage and strength.
The same may be said of saying the rosary outside abortion clinics, but they could just as well pray somewhere designed for that purpose. They are not at risk. They are making a public demonstration of their faith, in order to add impetus to their protest. Is that seemly, or is it discourteous? Is it an appropriate use of prayer, or is it a bit sanctimonious? And is that going to increase respect, or reduce it? Not easy to say, but I fear it is the latter.
Pic: Pro-life activists and pro-abortion advocates protest in front of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 2018 March for Life on January 19, 2018 in Washington, DC (Photo by Riccardo Savi/SIPA USA/PA Images)
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