...free to think freely


13th December 2017

Picketing Abortion Clinics

Parliamentary concern about the practice of anti-abortion groups holding “vigils” outside buildings where abortion counselling and /or operations are conducted raises serious issues around conflicting freedoms and rights. This website is not the place to discuss the rights and wrongs of abortion in general or in any particular circumstances, but it is necessary to consider how and where that debate should properly take place, and the door through which women seeking a service must pass does not strike as the most suitable place because of the depth of the issues involved.

Here is a major fault-line within our society between those who believe the sanctity of life demands all are protected, and especially those who have no voice, and those who think women are often also among the voiceless and need protection from those who might seek to influence them at a time when they feel particularly vulnerable. If we are not to enforce a single understanding of the issue how are we to live with the difference such a divided issue creates?

Opponents of abortion argue that the clinic door is the only place they can identify those in need of the advice they wish to give and that, if denied access there they would be unable to reach those they believe most in need of their message. They want to ensure every woman going in has had the opportunity to hear their viewpoint and they believe sufficient change their minds after seeing their leaflets to show there has not been adequate exposure to their case earlier. “Pro-choice” campaigners, together with the proprietors of the clinics, counter-claim that the demonstrators often use intimidating or obstructive tactics, causing women to feel threatened or harrassed on their way past. Groups organising the protests deny this.

Whatever the truth of these claims, it cannot be denied that it must be extremely unpleasant for somebody, who has already made a mistake and presumably feels uncomfortable with the situation they have got themselves into, to run a gauntlet of critics, however well-meaning, just to access advice on the only remedy they can think of at that time. Thus we have an encounter between extreme urgency and extreme stress, guaranteed to cause great distress.

What is really behind this? I would argue the root cause is deep distrust between two strongly-held opinions, neither of which leaves room for compromise. This distrust is itself a threat to a well-functioning society, because it leads to loss of confidence in public services and a tendency instead to attempt direct action, which leads rapidly to confrontation and fear, if not actual violence. What is needed here is not just a ban on protestors approaching certain venues, but a healing of public confidence which will enable the protestors to believe their message will form a proper considered part of the counselling process enabling people to make properly informed choices. If that could be done, maybe they could be persuaded to stay away from sensitive venues and confine their activities to preparing their arguments and providing material for those institutions to use. In return, the institutions would have to undertake to give such material a fair place and not misrepresent it. Gaining such trust would be difficult, but without it society will ultimately become unstable as more and more fundamental divides simmer away unseen threatening to boil over at any time.

Of course, such persuasion is unlikely to work without legal backing, but legal backing is also unlikely to work without consensus behind it. Respect relies on trust and trust requires respect.