Shutting down dialogue about abortion is contrary to women’s welfare and freedom of expression

Shutting down dialogue about abortion is contrary to women’s welfare and freedom of expression

Last month, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a bill making it a criminal offence for anyone to engage in “influencing” women inside “safe access zones” (100m) around abortion clinics. The bill targets those who protest against abortion or attempt to assist pregnant women outside such clinics, in order to “protect” women from “harassment”.

This is despite stories of women like Alina Dulgheriu who was approached by a volunteer outside an abortion clinic and given the help she needed to keep her unborn daughter: 

“Eleven years ago, I was single, abandoned, facing unemployment, and terrified when I discovered I was pregnant…[The bill claims to be] ‘protecting’ women who find themselves in my situation.

The funny thing is, the voices of women like me rarely get a chance to be heard in relation to what would actually help us…That bill, designed to prevent us from hearing about offers of support to continue our pregnancies, will shut down options open to women who find themselves in crisis. Such legislation would’ve been detrimental to the course of my life. To explain more, let me take you back a decade.

I didn’t sleep the night before my appointment at Marie Stopes. Some would say I had ‘chosen’ abortion. The truth is I didn’t choose it. I just didn’t seem to have any other option... I wanted to keep her, but I didn’t know how. What could I do?”

Dulgheriu says that if politicians “really want to support and empower women – even to promote ‘choice’ – this isn’t it”. She maintains that “[r]emoving the option to receive help to keep a child in case we feel ‘offended’ is deeply patronising, assuming that we can’t make a decision for ourselves”. 

Catherine Robinson of Right To Life UK agreed:

“It is under the pretence of liberty and choice that women are being stripped of the ability to access support provided by peaceful pro-life volunteers. Countless women, such as Alina, have found the help and support they needed when kindly approached outside an abortion clinic. This law change will prevent these women from having access to this vital support provided by peaceful pro-life volunteers.” 

Similar laws now exist in every state and territory across Australia, after Western Australia became the last state to pass them last year. This is despite efforts of organisations like Women’s Forum Australia to oppose such laws as not being in the best interests of women.

“Safe access zone” laws claim to promote the “safety and well-being” of women seeking abortions, however the reverse is true. Harassment is unacceptable and already illegal, but these laws prevent vulnerable women from accessing support or information in the very instance they might need it most. Support is crucial in a situation where women are often driven by fear of intimate partner violence, coercion from their partner or others, study and career pressures, or a lack of financial and emotional support. These laws do not address the deeper societal issues that inhibit women’s choices. Rather they restrict women’s choices even further, while reinforcing a “choice” that is known to carry with it risks of physical and psychological harm. 

In addition to being contrary to women’s rights and welfare, “safe access zone” laws are contrary to freedom of expression. Indeed, they criminalise dialogue around one of the most significant issues affecting women.

Journalist Georgia L. Gilholy argues that in addition to being an unacceptable restriction on freedom of expression, such laws are counterproductive to the goals of abortion advocates:

“This law will criminalise views that most pro-choicers find objectionable and offensive, but is this not the very height of counter-productivity? Outlawing the expression of views we may find to be extreme simply makes martyrs of those who “risk” expressing them, a dynamic that massively deflects from the only true way to changing minds: education and rational debate.”

Gilholy notes that “the lust for clamping down on freedom of expression” in this case “does not extend to the consistently bold tactics of environmental activists such as Extinction Rebellion” and that “it seems like the right to protest need only apply when it protects…particular ideological values.”

“This is the problem with so many contemporary appeals for censorship. Those calling for it rarely do so through appeal to an objective standard that can be consistently applied, but rather out of an appeal to the particular values that they, or their political or social grouping, hold dear. This isn’t principled activism; it’s power play.”

She further observes that “safe access zone” laws court “not only political fallout, but personal strife”:

“Let’s say I am a mother accompanying my pregnant daughter to an abortion clinic. Like most mothers, I love and care for my daughter and have her best interests at heart. I may feel that for various reasons my daughter is making the wrong decision in seeking an abortion, and that she will come to regret it.

I could be wrong or right, but in any case, it is hardly the business of the state whether I decide to express my feelings on this topic to my daughter.”

Laws that smother dialogue about abortion do women no favours. Instead, they unjustifiably restrict freedom of expression and women’s freedom, and undermine the safety and wellbeing of the very women they seek to protect. Real freedom and support for women facing unplanned pregnancies would involve the freedom to access all support and information, not just that which points them towards abortion.