Yesterday's decision is a clear violation of civil liberties, and there is a dreadful irony at its heart
Yesterday, Ealing Council voted unanimously to impose a “safe zone” of 100 metres around a Marie Stopes abortion centre. Applause broke out as the vote was taken, and the Council leader, Julian Bell, described the measure as “something that’s long been needed”.
The levels on which this “safe zone” is a violation of not just basic civil liberties but common sense are almost unplumbable. Despite the constant invocation of women’s right to enter and leave the centre free from “harassment” and “intimidation”, not a single shred of credible evidence has been produced – not one mobile phone video, not one police report – which suggests that the people targeted by this measure have done anything more “intimidating” than pray the rosary, smile, and offer leaflets. I am routinely subjected to similar “harassment” or worse coming and going from my local Tube station.
Nothing being done by those standing vigil outside Marie Stopes is materially distinguishable from any number of other instances of people standing in groups and handing out flyers every day in London. The only difference is what they think and where they think it. If a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, or vegans, or gay-rights activists stood in the same place, with signs of the same size, handing out flyers to women as they came and went, no one would have lifted a finger to stop them. What you cannot do in Ealing is stand near an abortion clinic and be visibly pro-life. Just holding a rosary and a sign which says “Choose Life” within 100 metres of Marie Stopes is now deemed harassment.
Let no one tell you otherwise: what Ealing Council have banned from the area is not an action but a point of view. It is a clear and chilling violation of the basic civil rights to peaceful assembly and free speech. The most intimidating word which has been alleged as being used against pregnant women entering the centre is, literally, “mum.” As illiberal and unreasonable as Ealing Council’s action is, so too is the response that people may still gather and “protest” elsewhere.
Leaving aside the obvious analogy with being told one could “protest” against government policy so long as you were not anywhere near Parliament, those gathering outside Marie Stopes are not protesting – they are reaching out to women whom they suspect may be pressured into an abortion they do not really want. Anecdotal evidence suggests their suspicions are right: the Good Counsel Network claims that some 500 women have decided against abortion because of their outreach work.
The premise upon which Ealing Council has acted is that exposure to the view that abortion means ending a human life is materially harmful to people seeking an abortion, and offering them support and alternatives is harassment. This is the beginning of the treatment of pro-life views as “hate speech”. Under current UK law, hate crime is “any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice”. While seeking an abortion is not currently a protected class, the logic of the Ealing ban is that it could be a criminal offence to say “Life begins at conception” to the wrong person.
On the ground it is also not at all clear how the “safe zone” will be enforced. Suppose tomorrow a group of 10 Catholics turn up and pray the rosary together – no signs, no leaflets, nothing said but a prayer: would they be evicted? Arrested, even? I suspect they would, the argument being that “weaponised rosary beads,” as local MP Rupa Huq calls them, are considered synonymous with being in favour of life. This being the case, we have seen the effective prohibition of religious practice by Catholics in a designated area.
Leaving aside the upending of basic civil liberties, we should also consider the final irony of terming the area around a Marie Stopes centre a “safe zone.” Nothing will ever make that true for children in the womb. Defying freedom of speech, justice, and common sense, Ealing Council have managed to erect the most unsafe “safe zone” in the country.