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.