Abortion: Women deserve protection from pavement bullies at Marie Stopes clinic
Bernie Smyth, of the anti-abortion campaign Precious Life, is now free to resume her own distinctive form of protest outside the Marie Stopes centre in Belfast, following the overturning of her harassment conviction against the clinic's former director, Dawn Purvis. I'm left wondering what this means for women wishing to visit Marie Stopes. Who is going to stand up for them? Who will protect them from those oh-so-compassionate, caring activists who show their Christian love by shouting in women's faces and chasing them and filming them, or thrusting plastic foetuses under their noses and telling them that they are murderers?
At the original trial, I was heartened to hear the judge, Chris Holmes, speak out strongly in support of people's right to access the reproductive health centre. "I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not feel it is appropriate for anyone to be stopped outside this clinic in any form, shape or fashion," he said, "and questioned either to their identity, why they are going in there and being forced to involve themselves in conversation at times when they are almost certainly going to be stressed and very possibly distressed."
Noble words, fine sentiments, but they have no force in law. And they beg further, more pressing questions. Where does legitimate protest end and unwarranted coercion begin? At what point does the free expression of one person's sincerely held belief become an impediment to another person's right to autonomous freedom of movement?
This battle is being fought out every week on the streets of Belfast, while passers-by look the other way and pretend the repeated intimidation of women isn't happening. But it is happening. The zealots, the people who believe they have the God-given right and duty to thrust their views down the throats of everyone else, appear to be winning.
Very occasionally, they go so far that the authorities - who appear to spend most of the time in denial of this outrageous situation - are forced to act. This week, anti-abortion campaigner Moira Brennan was convicted of assaulting an employee of FPA, the sexual health charity. Brennan tried to stuff anti-abortion leaflets in her bag, before hitting her with a clipboard she was carrying. The attack left the victim "shaken and upset". I can understand that. I felt pretty shaken up myself when I was followed from the Marie Stopes clinic by a wild-eyed protester, who kept blocking my way, and only gave up when I threatened to call police. I can't imagine how it would feel to be pursued and harangued if you were in a crisis pregnancy situation.
As Mark Breslin, the FPA's Northern Ireland director, points out, "there is a fundamental difference between the right to peaceful protest - which we respect and defend - and what these people do, which is to block entrances, question women why they are coming into a building, try and force leaflets with offensive imagery and language on to them, and intimidate staff."
So what is the answer?
Free speech is vital to our democracy, and it must be defended with vigour, not just for the people with whose views we agree, or can tolerate, but for everyone. Chomsky famously said that "if we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all". But a protester's right to freedom of expression must end when they start interfering with or restricting another person's right to walk down the street, or into a building, unmolested.
Ann Furedi, the director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, and herself a long-time free speech advocate, correctly states that "the attempt to deter a woman from entering a clinic - by use of words or force as an obstacle - is an action designed to undermine her capacity for decision-making. It is an assault on her autonomy."
This is not about whether or not you believe in abortion rights. Many of the women who receive the tender ministrations of Precious Life activists have no intention of seeking a termination.
They may be looking for advice about contraception, they may be employed by one of the sexual health organisations - as in the case of the worker assaulted by Brennan - or they may work for another company in the same building.
It's about the right to go about your daily business - whatever it may be - without some monomaniacal fanatic blocking your path. If the law cannot protect us from these self-appointed 'pavement counsellors', then the law must change.