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Buffer zones – a form of subverting freedom of speech and real choice

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It would appear that once again, liberties are under threat of being curtailed by the proponents of the pro-abortion brigade. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, has called for ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics to protect women from harassment.’ A buffer zone is an area which would bar protestors from getting within a certain distance of the abortion clinic.

Is this another unequal privilege the pro-choice lobby are allowed by stirring and throwing accusations at those who are legally protesting against their ideological view?

This is the first time in England that this motion to have a ‘buffer zone’ has been proposed, although there have been some measurements taken in the US, Canada, France and Australia to stop pro-life campaigners from exercising their right to free speech in the public space.

Is England now heading the same way? Last year Core Issues Trust brought an application for judicial review and lost over Transport for London banning advertisements that had anti-gay sentiments, claiming breaches of rights under Article 9,10 and 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Article 9 of the ECHR specifically states the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and Article 10, the freedom of expression including the right to receive or impart information and ideas. These articles exist to defend the free expression of what can often be strongly opposing views for the consideration by the public in the name of the common good.

Most recently the Massachusetts U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous decision threw out a law that created a 35 foot buffer zone which would prevent pro-life campaigners from approaching and talking to women considering an abortion or offering their counselling services. The US Supreme court wrote that ‘it is no accident that public streets and sidewalks have developed as venues for the exchange of ideas…In light of the First Amendment’s purpose “to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail …,” this aspect of traditional public fora is a virtue, not a vice.

If the U.S. Massachusetts Supreme Court can recognise this, why is the Shadow Home Secretary unable to?

Buffer zones are supposed to be neutral territory where no one party has effective control over it. This motion however would not create neutral territory; this territory would only be open to the patients and that of the pro-choice clinic employees (who are by definition not neutral) and therefore be closer to an ‘exclusion zone’. This was in fact the same reason why the Massachusetts Supreme Court threw out the law- because it ‘discriminated based on viewpoint.’

In effect, a ‘buffer zone’ zone would give the pro-choice group unfettered and privileged access to the woman still in the throes of making her decision.

Should this be the case? Will that not have the effect of making women feel that they are ‘on a conveyor belt towards just one option, abortion?’ Is that truly pro-choice?

This motion has been proposed in the name of protecting women from harassment and intimidation. But is real harassment and intimidation going on?

Ann Furedi, the CEO of BPAS, has accused members of a pro-life campaign organisation of intimidating its staff and women. But just last week a woman, who was approached by them, was reported by Christian Concern expressing her gratitude to the members of that group for helping her through her decision by supporting her in that difficult time of deliberation. She further told Newsbeat that ‘They don’t pressure you outside the clinics if you don’t want to listen. They’re just giving their opinion. They should be allowed to do it because some people will change their minds. If I didn’t listen to them, I would have regretted it all my life.’ There should be a distinction drawn between giving information and harassment or intimidation. Does holding a prayer vigil outside an abortion clinic, as ‘40 days for life’ does, constitute harassment?

The real problem perhaps is that abortion itself as a topic is highly emotive, bringing controversial moral issues to the forefront of the discussion, such as whether morally the fetus is a human being, has equal value to the mother, and the effects of the procedure itself on the woman. Of course there are limits to free speech, as noted by Peter Saunders, but what level of free speech in this situation is almost entirely dependent on whether one considers abortion to be morally permissible.

Those who are firmly settled on their decision to abort will most likely walk past the protesters without much thought and they have every right to, without being hindered (as upheld by the public order act 1986). It is those who are undecided or who have reservations who maybe open to suggestion and persuasion. If so, should they not have the right and the opportunity to hear both sides to make an informed decision?

As it is, pre-abortion counselling (which is supposed to be neutral but often isn’t) is predominantly provided by BPAS who clearly have a vested financial interest in the outcome of the decision in favour of abortions.

This motion would make the space around abortion clinics all around the UK a protected platform within which one party of the debate expands that grip over vulnerable women already hindered from hearing all the angles. If these women consent to having an abortion under these circumstances, is consent truly meaningful even if it is not informed?

Ann Furedi claims she is as passionate about free speech as she is about a women’s choice and right to an abortion and she did express her censure at the shut down of debate regarding abortion at Oxford. Her next steps regarding buffer zones will prove the vital test whether this is in fact true.

So I wait in hope – let the real exchange of ideas in the public square begin and long may it continue. After all, our great civilisation was founded in part by high quality public discourse. It would be a shame to reject that well held tradition.

Posted by Dr Cheryl Chin
CMF Public Policy Researcher

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