The following is a guest post Dr. Timothy Tomkinson.
Last month, Ealing Borough Council took the step of using Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) to prevent anti-abortion protesters near abortion clinics. Since then, there have been calls by MPs and organisations such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), to deploy these PSPOs across other areas of the country.
There are three points here, relevant to people who have no strong views on the topic of abortion itself. Firstly, the right to protest; secondly, truly providing a choice and; thirdly, the government funding for a monopoly which generates great revenue for private interests.
First, the freedom to protest. Whilst one might disagree with the message of pro-life protesters, to take the step of preventing their right to free assembly and their right of protest is a drastic one. The European Charter of Human Rights (ECHR) defends the right to protest in sections 10 and 11 - as well as the historic right in Britain to free assembly under Common Law.
The charge levelled against the protesters is one of disruption and distress according to the petition, as well as intimidation according to Rupa Huq, MP for the area. Other people regard these protests as a form of harassment.
This is important, because harassment and intimidation are already prohibited under the law. As spokespeople for the protest have said, the fact they are not being charged with harassment or intimidation rather implies they are not harassing or intimidating people. This being so, the reason left for deploying a PSPO is because of disruption and distress. This point matters and is something which should concern all of us, because distress is an unquantifiable entity. It is so subjective by nature that anything can be prohibited under its remit when politically expedient, and that is what we now see.
Just focus, for a minute, on which protests are the ones being curtailed. In recent times, there are protests – be they anti-austerity or anti-Brexit – where young men and women routinely don balaclavas, disguise their faces and in large groups march the London streets with placards calling for white men to die. Yet, whilst the right to protest here is well protected (despite the obvious incitement contained in the stated slogan), protests by a few dozen people praying with placards are reserved as the target for politicians’ ire. This is especially curious as many of them appear to be elderly ladies (if a Google Image search is to be believed), making one dubious about how great a disruption they are really causing.
It seems that the right to protest is determined largely by the side of an argument you are on. Sadiq Khan’s statements on this matter, compared to his silence on other protests is a stark example of this. Indeed, in this context it could appear somewhat hypocritical of publications such as the Guardian seemingly to advocate restricting these protests, when hitherto it has portrayed itself as a staunch champion of such a right.
When your freedoms are contingent on your political viewpoint - that is the road to perdition. Deploying a PSPO against these protests is not increasing people’s freedom, it is curtailing access to “undesirable” opinions.
The second point is about the right of choice, as the term “pro-choice” is sometimes misleading. During the time I spent as a medical student in abortion clinics, one thing that struck me was, in general, the women asking for abortions generally felt they didn’t have a choice. They felt their circumstances sadly meant they couldn’t have a child. In these clinics one hears women of many different ages and backgrounds, in desperate and very difficult times of their lives, yet all seem united in the fact they don’t have a choice. Be it a university student who feels she can’t have a child because she’ll be judged; a young woman whose partner isn’t ready for a child; or a lady who has children already and doesn’t feel she can afford to care for another. They are all united in feeling that this is their last resort and that they don’t have a choice.
If an organisation is truly to call itself pro-choice, perhaps it could do more to offer women the option to keep a child. Whilst many women have made their decision, the move to ban a protest nearby which offers an alternative might imply that “choice” is not what is being advocated. Perhaps the best way to be genuinely pro-choice would be to aim for a society where pregnant women don’t feel they will be judged for keeping the child, don’t feel pressured by other family members and peers, and are supported if they decide to keep it.
Whilst most people in the UK identify as “pro-choice”, sometimes the system is set up to be “pro-abortion”. It is not surprising that there are so many abortions in the UK, when the weight of inertia is with organisations such as BPAS, who profit from the circumstances of these women. Sadly, at the moment, our societal view on abortion is partly shaped by lobbying from corporate monopolies. That leads to the third point.
Thirdly the role of monopolies. It is hard to deny the monopoly abortion advocates have on the narrative, in terms of the funding they get, as well as the political backing for their organisations. A company like BPAS receives 95% of its payments from the NHS, a public resource. In fact only 2% of abortions in 2016 were privately funded; the other 98% of abortions in the UK are funded by the NHS, of which 68% are provided by for-profit organisations. Currently BPAS, has prices ranging from £470 to £1530 per abortion, and generates an annual revenue of £29.1 million. If we take that as representative of organisations across the board, the 68% of all abortions which are NHS-funded but privately provisioned, would generate just over £69 million gross revenue per annum - not including charitable donations or other government funding. With such large sums of money, it must raise the question of impartiality when it comes to the topic in question.
These points are relevant to all of us, regardless of views on abortion. They are relevant because they show how the freedom to protest and express ourselves is granted subjectively by the views we hold. They also show how debate in our country is increasingly shaped by large corporate interests over individual conscience – hardly a free marketplace of ideas. It would be nice to assume the best in both sides of this argument and actually debate the issue, rather than assuming they are bad people and seeking to ban them.
Photo Credit: Right to Life
All views expressed in contributions by named authors are their own and may not reflect the views of The Freedom Association.