The problem with protest-free buffers around abortion clinics

There seems to be much news about abortion of late. The blogosphere – and certain mainstream news outlets – have expended much time pouring over recent undercover videos showing the modus operandi of American abortion provider Planned Parenthood (e.g. see here, here and here amongst others). Attention initially focused on PP’s callous efforts to abort foetuses in “a less crunchy way” in order to preserve body parts which they can sell on. Things quickly moved on to their “after-birth abortions” which remain virtually impossible to distinguish from the murder of a newly born child (apart from the fact the foetus is not wanted by the mother). 

Many have commented on the glib manner in which PP representatives conversed over lunch about killing infants who have taken their first breath (not just those killed in utero) and noted the cold, detached discussion regarding the resale value of individual body parts. It is the matter-of-factness of it all that seems to have caused the greatest consternation. The details surrounding the reality of abortion clinics have long been in the public domain; the regular goings on are well established. As such, I don’t particular want to dig into any of the details surrounding PP here. I rather wanted to look at another story which, though having nothing to do with PP, is linked. 

Today, Yvette Cooper – Labour leadership contender – argued in favour of protest-free buffers around abortion clinics. We are already contending with Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) from the incumbent government (see here) which seek to inhibit free speech and, to some degree, free thought. Now, in line with the New Labour tendency to such things, Cooper is mooting curbs on the right to protest against abortion, another of the new cultural orthodoxies that cannot be spoken against.

Why has this been raised as an issue? As The Guardian report, The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has complained confirmed that one of their clinics had to close down as a “direct result of protest activity”. In other words, as the protest actually had the desired effect, Cooper wants to limit anything that might have a positive outcome for the protesters. She is happy for folk to protest in ways that are thoroughly ineffectual but, as soon as the action begins to work, curbs on freedom must be introduced to protect cultural orthodoxy.

On such things New Labour have form. It was they who stopped anti-war protesters from camping outside Westminster primarily because they found it a nuisance to be reminded of widespread public displeasure at certain military interventions. It is New Labour who began to introduce limits on free speech because certain words or phrases could be deemed “offensive” or “annoying”. It was New Labour who inculcated the culture of offence and victimhood which meant certain words and views could not be expressed without the law being brought to boot. Now, Yvette Cooper – who has been part of the New Labour project – wishes to stop dissent regarding yet another culturally accepted norm. Cultural orthodoxy cannot be challenged, protests can only take the form of ineffective, inoffensive nothingness. Anything that may offend or lead to a questioning of the cultural zeitgeist is verboten.

Is there a legitimate discussion to be had regarding the boundaries of legitimate protest? Of course. Is it wrong to intimidate or harass those against whom you protest? Absolutely. But if intimidation and harassment are subjective measures, that which one person finds meek and mild another will find thoroughly intimidating. Where do the boundaries of such things lie?

Let’s consider this: if we were discussing a protest outside the doors of a shop found to be exploiting foreign labour, would a buffer-zone be mooted? Would tears be shed for the shop workers? Would there be an outcry if the shop had to shut down? Or, alternatively, consider animal testing laboratories. Are protesters expected to protest away from the lab in such a way that their protest is rendered totally ineffective? Surely it is simply the nature of the clinic that has caused the concern.

Every reasonable person agrees that threats and intimidation are not appropriate tools of protest. However, being “confronted with images of foetuses” can hardly be said to represent a threat. And a static protest standing outside the doors of a clinic is hardly harassment. Following those seeking to go into the clinic up and down the street may fall into that category but a static protest can hardly be considered within the same bracket. As for intimidation, it is possible for anyone to find anything intimidating. It may be intimidating to walk past a group of protesters but if there is not danger to life or limb, no threat of assault, it seems such is congruent with a free and civil society.

The issue is a troubling one and extends well beyond the presenting issue. If we are prepared to reduce protests outside abortion clinics to ineffective and valueless acts, what is to stop legislation from doing the same to other forms of public assembly? If a static protest outside an abortion clinic amounts to intimidation and harassment, then what of the union picket line? What of animal rights protest? What of anti-hunting campaigns? How about the anti-austerity protests or anti-war marches? If we go down this line, there really is nothing to stop future governments finding anything politically awkward to which this approach could not be taken. There will be no means of protest that might possibly have any effect on the issue at hand. By castrating the power of the protest, they render all protest of no value.

Regardless of our view on the rights and wrongs of abortion, it surely cannot be right to restrict the right of others to disagree. It is also short-sighted to disallow tactics that may cause others to change their mind. It sets a dangerous precedent for all forms of protest and reduces protest to a valueless act. If it is politically expedient to do so, there is no reason such powers couldn’t extend to any protest on any issue. The policy is a bad one and the precedent it will set is even worse.