BPAS Debate – Freedom of Speech, Anti-Abortion Protestors and Women: Rights and Limits

Last night, I attended a public debate hosted by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, on the rights of anti-abortion protestors to campaign outside abortion clinics. The pro-choice half of the panel consisted of Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS, and Sarah Ditum, a writer and journalist. The opposing half consisted of Andrea Minichiello Williams, founder of Christian Concern, and Max Wind-Cowie, a writer with centre-right political beliefs.

Both Ann and Sarah gave excellent speeches. While fully supporting the notion of freedom of speech as essential to the exchange of ideas, they argued that freedom of speech does not extend to the right to bully, harass, and intimidate. As Ann asserts, “It is not a kind of charter that allows you to say anything you want, to anyone you want, at any time you want, in any place you want.” And you can be sure that when anti-abortion protestors camp outside a clinic, they are not attempting to engage in debate or change public opinion; their sole purpose of being there is to shame women into keeping the unwanted pregnancy. Not only do they thrust leaflets at the women and wave disturbing images in their faces, some even go so far as to pursue them, or bar their entrance into the clinic. Clearly, this sort of behaviour is absolutely unacceptable.

Representing the anti-choice league, Andrea gave a number of predictable arguments. Although the chair, David Allen Green, had explicitly told us that the aim of the debate was to discuss the juggling of the right to free speech with the right of women to be safe from harassment, and not to discuss the morality of abortion, Andrea spent much of her time trying to convince us that abortion was wrong. She also decided to exercise her own freedom of speech by showing Abort67′s graphic video during her original presentation. Instead of engaging with the debate, she chose the route of emotional manipulation.

Nonetheless, she did offer a few cognitive points, although most of them were slightly baffling. For instance, one of her arguments against abortion was that “the generational line would be interrupted.” To back up this notion, she proceeded to give an example of one of her friends, who had almost been aborted, but had been adopted instead. Now, Andrea told us, she has 6 children of her own. Had she been aborted, “the generational line would have been interrupted.” Is Andrea arguing against abortion here, or the state of childlessness? And is one’s generational line really that important? My aunt has chosen to remain single, with no children. She is approaching sixty, so I suppose her generational line has been interrupted. I’m sure she would be amused to hear that she has committed a grievous wrong.

She also used the classic Beethoven argument. Relating a story of a woman who decided not to go through with abortion, she told us about the child that was born as a result. Nigeria is now 17 years old and a cheerleader, said Andrea. If she had been aborted, she would not now exist.

I suppose there’s no denying the truth of that. Likewise, if my parents had chosen to stop at one child, I would not exist today. If they had chosen not to have sex on that particular night (or day, I honestly don’t know), I would not exist today. If they had decided to have three children instead of stopping at two, I would have a little sibling who today does not exist. And so the Beethoven argument, sentimental as it may sound, really does not hold.

But what was most astounding to me was the glaring lack of research on Andrea’s part. Not only did she assert that BPAS did not offer ultrasounds to their patients (they do), she also told us not to forget that BPAS was a business and that it was in their interests to persuade women to have an abortion. Now I am not a major player in the pro-choice/anti-choice debate, but even so, a quick glance at BPAS’ website tells me that they are a registered charity. Their twitter description explicitly announces that they are not-for-profit. Surely, this is a basic level of research that one should have under one’s belt when participating in a debate of this magnitude.

Max’s points were much less jarring. He stressed the importance of free speech, and while he would not condone assault or physical interference with patients, he felt that freedom of speech should be applicable everywhere, and we shouldn’t cordon off “certain stretches of road” (in this case the area outside an abortion clinic) as places where certain things could not be said, and certain images could not be shown. However, two of his arguments did not sit well with me.

Firstly, he mentioned that as a gay man, he was perfectly happy for Christians to come up to him and tell him why they thought his actions immoral. That, he felt, was their right. However, as my boyfriend later pointed out, it’s one thing for Max to discuss the morality of homosexuality over coffee, and quite another to have a group of people accosting him whenever he was about to enter a gay bar, or protesting outside his bedroom door. Let’s skip into the future, where gay marriage is legal and it’s a couple’s happy day. Imagine a group of anti-gay-marriage folks standing outside the wedding venue, waving banners and saying prayers, trying to persuade the couple not to enter and not to go through with it. “This is the last point where we can stop gay marriage from happening!” they cry. “We have every right to be here to save you from your sins!” Still happy with that, Max?

Secondly, Max supports the presence of protesters outside clinics, claiming that he believes women capable of ignoring them if they choose, in the same way that they can ignore a pro-life popup ad on the Internet. But these two scenarios are completely different. On the Internet, you are anonymous. The ad is present, but it’s not attempting to interact with you individually, nor does it invade your personal space. Ignoring it is much simpler than ignoring a protestor waving a banner in your face as you’re entering a clinic, sometimes taking pictures of you, calling you a murderer. And what I find disturbing is the appropriation of feminist ideas to counter feminist goals, when people say that they don’t believe women are so weak as to be unable to handle *insert manifestation of inequality here*. It’s essentially saying, ‘You’re a feminist, you believe that women are strong, right? Well then, if they’re so strong, they should be able to take it.” But feminists have never said that women have superhuman strength. On the contrary, we have insisted time and time again that women are no more and no less than human beings, with human strengths, but also human weaknesses. A woman who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy, and is facing circumstances that make it unthinkable for her to have the child, is already in a vulnerable position. To hound her outside the abortion clinic with disturbing pictures is both cruel and harmful. Women are strong. But we are also people. We are not rocks.

In the end, the most stirring comment of the evening came from the floor. Cheryl Jones, a barrister, had the following to say:

“Those of you who are anti-abortion, perhaps try turning your attention to stopping the pregnancy in the first place, not to approaching women who are in difficult situations. They go on the Internet, they’ve talked to their friends. They’re not stupid. They know exactly what they’re doing, they know exactly what is involved. They don’t need to see those graphic photographs; they’ve already got them in their heads. Because they know what they’re doing. Stop the pregnancy in the first place: free contraception, extensive contraception, proper sex education. No more shaming of women for having sex! Because that is what is behind most of those pregnancies.” (At which point the crowd burst into raucous applause.)

And I think it is here that ‘pro-lifers’ show their true colours. Because the people campaigning against abortion are also very often the same people who are against contraception. They are often the same people who advocate abstinence, who slut-shame, resulting in a sad lack of proper sex education for many young women. If anti-abortionists are genuinely concerned about abortion numbers, they would take Cheryl Jones’ advice. They would listen to Ann Furedi when she tells them that their methods are ineffective -  the number of abortions in clinics with a strong protestor presence is no different from clinics where women are not hassled. The only difference is a higher gestation period, suggesting that the women are turned away by the protestors, only to change their minds and return. All the protestors have achieved is the prolongation of a woman’s emotional distress.

But in spite of all this, I suspect that anti-abortionists will continue to protest outside abortion clinics. I suspect that they will continue to promote abstinence and speak of the evils of birth control. Because they aren’t really pro-life, they are simply anti-choice.

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22 thoughts on “BPAS Debate – Freedom of Speech, Anti-Abortion Protestors and Women: Rights and Limits

  1. It really is anti choice. It’s very boring to not have choice.

    I have asked pro-life people, who sometimes wonder around downtown Toronto with their signs, if they would take care of my baby. They either say nothing or say no that they personally would not. I then proceed to tell them to F Off.

  2. It’s just stagnant-minded thinking. I think you really hit the nail on the head pointing out that Andrea Minichiello Williams argument lacked reason and research. Generally those with the anti-choice argument are anti-progression. Traditionalists who often can’t reason their view, but simply argue because it doesn’t sit comfortably with them. Such a shame that a woman in such a promoting position can’t even take advantage of this by at least providing some intellectual content.

    Also, if we’re living in a society where social regulations and a sense of social order rules, arguments such as “pro-life” are often out-ridden by everyday cultural factors such as economic status, career pressures, living arrangements and general future aspirations. We no longer live for the ‘natural’, social politics drive our lifestyle. Be realistic.

    Might I also add that although I am not segregating males from having an opinion on (what society regards as) ‘female issues’. But it is infuriating reading Max Wind-Cowie’s juvenile, “if I were in your shoes” response, when he clearly has no idea what it is like to be a doubtful pregnant woman walking up to an abortion clinic. “Being gay” is completely different to going through a physical procedure.

    • Thanks for your comment; excellently put. Like you, I’m happy for either gender to contribute to discussions that primarily affect the other gender, but they have to conduct themselves with empathy, sensitivity and humility.

  3. This is the second time in a week I have heard the ‘feminism says women are strong, so they should be able to handle it’ line, which I had never encountered prior.
    I see strong similarities between it and the rhetoric that British politicians have recently employed to suggest that para-olympians prove the non-necessity of disability welfare.
    The innate potential for a person to display strength and resilience should not disqualify them from protection against attack, nor, conversely, should the existence of protection or assistance suggest or prove weakness.

  4. Sorry it took so long to get back, we spent yesterday taking our youngest back to uni and ferrying furniture, clothes and food up and down the country :)
    The ‘pro-life’ (hate that name) brigade always assume we need more humans when it’s pretty obvious there’s too many here already, especially cheerleaders (only joking with the last bit) The argument for Beethoven is spurious – we could just as easily end up with more Hitlers, Stalins and pots of Pol Pots. The RC church used to be against masturbation because of the loss of sperm – see Monty Python’s “Every sperm is sacred’ from the movie ‘Meaning of Life’ for satire on that nonsense.
    I studied Gender and International Human Rights last year as part of a masters and my feminist teacher said ‘Free speech’ is okay if everybody has the same power of utterance, but she said that’s not the case – some folk have little power and so ‘free speech’ isn’t so great for them.

  5. This article makes me very sad. I myself am Pro-Life. I am not against birth control, in fact, I am very VERY pro-birth control. When I was 19 years old I made the dumb decision to have unprotected sex. I’m sure you can guess what came next. I became pregnant. I chose an adoption plan for my child. I think it’s extremely important that young women know what they’re getting in to when they have sex. Sex is a HUGE responsibility. I would never stand outside an abortion clinic waving pictures of dead babies in someones face. That’s terrible and the people that do that are terrible. They aren’t helping anything.

  6. (cont) The reason that I am Pro-Life is because I have never been able to see the difference between ‘fetus’ and ‘child’. In my eyes, the ‘fetus’, even at the very beginning of a pregnancy, is still the potential for life (I don’t believe in the term fetus which is why I put it in parentheses). So so much potential. There are so many people out there who can’t have children and would love so much for a child of their own. I personally know someone who has had not one, not two, but three abortions, because she won’t get on birth control, wear a condom, or simply stop having sex with a bunch of random people. It is shameful. Abortion should not be a form of birth control. Now I’m not saying that if someone is raped they should be forced to keep their rape baby. Rape is traumatic and terrible and I think that is just evil. But if you get pregnant because you’re having sex and not being smart about it, then don’t make even less-smart decisions. The woman who fought in Roe Vs Wade ended up becoming a pro-life advocate in the end. Food for thought. Thanks for letting me share. I do respect everybody’s opinion on this matter, as I know it is a delicate one.

    • Women should not be forced incubators because someone else can’t have a child. Women are human beings, not breeding stock. Funny that this point still needs to be made.

      • That is a strange takeaway from Claire’s argument. Aside from cases of rape, which are obviously very different situations, women did choose to have sex and so are hardly ‘forced incubators.’ Are mothers forced nannies to their infants because child neglect is illegal?

        This raises the difficult, and rarely discussed, issue of whether a fetus should have rights and, if so, what should they be and how should they relate to a woman’s rights? Many countries forbid abortion when the fetus could survive outside the womb, however, as medical technology advances, we are able to save children that are more and more premature. A hard and fast line between is difficult to discern.

        • You are saying that all pregnant women made a conscious decision to have unprotected vaginal sex, and did not take precautions against pregnancy. Really? Your sentences are complete, so your lack of thought is somewhat surprising.
          Did every pregnant woman (or girl) actually consent to sex? Did she make a free choice? Are you aware of what a free choice actually looks like? Many young women end up either making no choice, or having such limited choices that using the word “free” is a mockery.

          Mothers are forced nannies because child neglect is illegal if the mother is the only one caring for said infant. Fathers are allowed to be sperm donors and split, leaving women to do a majority (or all) childcare.

          Further, the issue of fetal rights is not rarely discussed; it has been re-re-re-re-hashed since Roe v. Wade when the court said you cannot trample on (harm) actual persons when compared to a possible person.

          As you are not well-read, I can tell you as someone working in the medical field and up to date on recent literature that we are not able to save children more and more premature (unless you are being sarcastic and measuring time in moments- in which case haha- 25 weeks is more than 24 weeks, 6 days, 22 hours…) Super-low birth-weight preemies are kept “alive” on ventilators that are exorbitantly expensive and in short enough demand that actual children have died waiting for one to become available. The cost of running one of these machines is about $8000/day, and is futile (thus cruel) when the fetus is not mature enough to actually survive.

    • I have difficulty with the concept that abortion isn’t ok for those who had consensual sex, but it is ok for rape victims. It’s a double standard that punishes a woman for consensual sex by trying to force her to go ahead with pregnancy, based on the fetus’s right to life. Yet the rape baby doesn’t have those same rights. What’s up with that?

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