Last year Britain marked the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act. Given how often we are told that “reproductive rights” are a sine qua non of modern democratic society, it was a surprisingly muted affair. There were no hashtags, no parades, no endless series of television specials. When 50 years of legal abortion was discussed, as it was on Radio 4’s Moral Maze, it was debated, not celebrated. It seems that, far from having become a settled part of our cultural landscape, abortion is more hotly contested now than it has been for years.
Much of the renewed debate has centred on vigils (or “protests”, depending on who you ask) outside abortion clinics. Local councils in Ealing and Portsmouth are seeking to ban outright any pro-life presence outside local clinics. Ealing MP Rupa Huq has spoken of “phoney” pro-life vigils where protesters are supposedly “weaponising rosary beads”.
The Mayor of London has backed a ban on vigils outside clinics, and 113 MPs have signed a letter calling for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to impose “buffer zones” around them, preventing any sort of gathering nearby. Rudd appears to be sympathetic and told Parliament that she too is concerned by “aggressive” protesters.
But evidence of such “aggressive protests” stubbornly refuses to materialise. Last month the House of Commons home affairs select committee held a session on the allegations of “harassment” outside abortion clinics. It was a typically one-sided affair. Pro-abortion councillors from Ealing were given free rein to air their concerns and repeat calls for a ban, but failed to come up with any actual examples of harassment occurring.
A spokeswoman for an abortion provider was allowed to praise her organisation’s high standards, practice and counselling. Yet pro-life advocates, who were interrupted to the point of heckling by committee members, were strongly discouraged from mentioning the recent Care Quality Commission report which severely criticised parts of the abortion industry on exactly these issues.
On the floor of the House, Sir Edward Leigh asked the Home Secretary to confirm the Government’s commitment to the right to peaceful protest, and noted that if action was taken against pro-life demonstrations, similar action would be needed against anti-fox hunting campaigners and animal rights activists. Amber Rudd managed a general affirmation of the right to demonstrate, but made sure to finish on a rather more passionate-sounding commitment to a woman’s right to enter an abortion clinic “safe from harassment and intimidation”, though she declined to give any specific examples of what this meant.
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