Last week, Home Secretary Sajid Javid rejected calls for buffer zones outside abortion clinics by saying that protest-free areas around clinics “would not be a proportionate response” to the harassment from protestors. Now perhaps it’s the English student in me, but the suggestion of a “proportionate response” seems to imply that the Home Secretary feels we should wait for a ‘proportionate’ number of women to be harassed before any action is taken to stop this harassment.
Abortion is a contentious issue, but I believe wrongly so; abortion should be personal and the business of only the woman who needs it, like any medical procedure. Protestors have attempted to undermine women’s choices through tactics such as physically blocking the patient’s path, assault and displaying distressing images. The government’s failure to act in the face of harassment appears to me like some sort of punishment. Ultimately, this decision ensures that more women will be penalised in the form of intimidation as they embark on this procedure. Our government seems to think that harassment must go to certain lengths before it is appropriate to step in, almost as if those women deserve a little bit of intimidation because it comes with the territory of having an abortion.
I am not trying to make out that this is the government’s stance, because a stance implies that the government is actually invested in the issue; instead, this is the government’s lazy way of brushing aside a serious problem. There is, to my mind, no similar situation where a man’s choices would be questioned and pressured to such an extent, and where the government would passively condone one group of people treating another as if they’re not entitled to make their own choices.
As ever, this is where the issue of free speech comes into play. It can be argued ‘Pro-life’ protestors (although I dislike this name because if someone is ‘pro-life’ why wouldn’t they support a safe medical procedure which helps maintain the life of a sentient, grown woman) have every right to protest outside abortion clinics because they feel passionately that abortions are wrong. After all, one of the most sacred things about our society is the right to protest freely.
However, much of what is peddled by such protestors is dangerously untrue and uninformed. The abortion limit in the UK is 24 weeks, with 90% taking place before 12 weeks when the foetus is just 2 inches long. Yet a lot of pro-life material makes out that these bundles of cells are miniature babies who could survive outside the womb; such myths can be turned into graphic and emotional anti-abortion material. The Public Order Act of 1986 restricts protest activities which cause harm to others, and the use of those blood-smeared, dead-foetus-featuring signs may do just that to a woman about to undergo a serious medical procedure.
I also take issue with some of the more passive forms of protest, such as being ‘prayed for’, which make up the majority of anti-abortion protests. Such shows of concern are insulting and patronising, a literal ‘holier-than-thou’ take on a personal situation. Whilst 1/5 of women have their mind changed by the staff inside the clinic, these staff are trained to help women make this decision by talking through financial, emotional matters surrounding the pregnancy, not by shaming her by shoving a photoshopped picture of a dead foetus in her face.
Whilst protestors are entitled to freedom of speech, this speech must be informed and not rely on emotional tropes to guilt-trip women, whose situation they know absolutely nothing about, into changing their minds. Abortions are not something that anyone considers lightly. They are expensive, with a consultation costing £85 and treatment as much as £475 at a Marie Stopes clinic. There are proper legal procedures to challenge laws one disagrees with – intimidating vulnerable people outside abortion clinics is not the way to do this.
The BBC found instances of patients becoming distressed, rebooking their appointments or failing to follow medical advice following such protests. This clearly demonstrates how the failure to create buffer zones curtails choices for women. A buffer zone would go a long way to allow women free choice about their pregnancy, a decision which will permanently affect every aspect of their life. Ultimately, the UK government’s refusal to implement them is an affront to all women.