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.
Some of the more “aggressive” tactics which have been said to have been deployed include praying (apparently to Rupa Huq’s mind a symbolically violent act), handing out leaflets and audibly referring to women entering the clinics as “mothers”.
These are a far cry from the more robust and even aggressive protests which, as Sir Edward noted, go on uninterrupted outside companies performing animal testing or accompany hunt meetings. Other protests that we have seen recently absolutely do cross the line into aggression. Consider those protesters who have spat at members of our Armed Forces and called them “rapists” and “murderers” as they paraded. But even then, law enforcement seems to err on the side of free expression.
It is a curious anomaly that the right to free speech, peaceful assembly and protest are so robustly entrenched in our country, except when it comes to abortion. Why is it such a special case?
Some suggest that abortion protesters are being singled out because abortion is a liberal-left article of faith and other, much more aggressive protests happen to be broadly in line with the worldview of those backing a woman’s “right to choose”. They would also note that protesters against abortion are overwhelmingly and obviously Christians, a group whose moral qualms and concerns are rather less deserving of a full and fair hearing to the mind of many in the political and media establishment.
But is abortion as much of a settled issue as some like to claim? Take another example by way of comparison: meat-eating. If vegans protested outside Tesco, calling for the end of meat production and its sale, most would instinctively suspect that they would be left alone.
But the figures suggest the British public is rather more uneasy about abortion than it is about meat-eating. Less than one per cent of the British population is vegan, yet 60 per cent want to see a reduction in the availability of abortion from the current limit of 24 weeks to 20 weeks or less. This rises to 70 per cent among British women, and the number is growing.
Here, I suspect, is the real reason for the sudden crackdown on vocal opposition to abortion: it is changing minds. You do not have to look far to find stories of individual women who have been approached outside a clinic and, thanks to the support they were offered, decided against an abortion.
Speaking at a debate about buffer zones in Westminster Hall, Sir Edward Leigh read out the testimony of a woman who had felt pressure from those around her to have an abortion, even to the point of them escorting her to the clinic. Someone at a pro-life vigil outside the gates gave her a leaflet on the way in. The woman then, in her own words, “leapt out of the ground-floor window and cleared three fences to escape” before returning to the vigil, where she was “offered any support [she] needed to keep [the] baby and this gave [her] the confidence” she needed. Meeting a stranger at the gate was enough to show her she did actually have a choice.
Evidence is increasingly emerging that women are being counselled into abortions without being told of other options. At the same time, serious concerns have been highlighted by the Care Quality Commission about safeguarding and consent in Marie Stopes clinics. A voice at the door offering an alternative is often more powerful than we credit.
More widely, as medical science improves all the time, it has become increasingly difficult to pretend that a baby in the womb isn’t a real human life. We know that a baby is a new genetically unique human life from the moment of conception. There is a new heartbeat by the fourth week.
Brain activity can be detected at four to six weeks. By week 15 the child has a full set of taste buds.Children delivered prematurely are surviving from younger and younger ages. A government report in 2007 found that more than 60 babies had survived the abortion process that year and continued breathing unaided without medical care. One of them lived for 10 hours unaided; it later died of exposure.
Today, government statistics give a baby born at 24 weeks of gestation, the legal limit for essentially unfettered access to abortion, a 50 per cent chance of survival. But this number is a reflection of the care the baby is given, not its own innate chances of survival. For example, a baby born in a University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust hospital has, at 23 weeks of gestation, a 70 per cent chance of survival. Many of the supposedly “graphic” and “disturbing” images displayed by pro-life protesters do nothing more than show, in living colour, how obviously a baby a child in the womb is.
It is hard to fight a growing majority of public opinion. It’s hard to fight increasingly obvious science. It is nearly impossible to beat both together in a free and fair fight. This is why we are seeing a renewed crackdown on pro-life protests: they are simply too effective, and represent the very inconvenient truth that we, as a postmodern, secular society, actually don’t much care for abortion. When you find yourself defending a shrinking minority position, the most effective thing to do is close down the debate.
These sort of heavy-handed tactics should not come as a huge surprise. While the pro-abortion movement wraps itself in the language of rights and freedom, its roots are deeply imbedded in authoritarianism, racism and eugenics. From the Fabian Society to Margaret Sanger, abortion has been seen as an essential means not of liberating women, but of preventing the birth of undesirable babies, be they poor, socially or economically marginal, or, worst of all, disabled.
A movement that thinks nothing of the very right to life can hardly be expected to cherish the right to free speech for its opponents. The recent attempts to suppress opposition to abortion, and to stop people offering an alternative to women who feel they have none, perversely demonstrate the growing strength of the pro-life movement. What is essential now is ensuring that the debate continues, and that the pro-life voice remains equally pro the mothers who find themselves in terrible circumstances.
Ed Condon is a canon lawyer and contributing editor of the Catholic Herald
This article first appeared in the January 19 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here