Censorship zones around abortion clinics represent another nail in the coffin of liberal democracy

Marc Glendening

December 13, 2022

Imagine for a moment, that a group of militant, but not physically aggressive, transgender ideologues were to picket an event being held by feminists who are trans-sceptical. Imagine further that those attending the meeting then claimed that they had been psychologically harmed because of the accusations being made against them by the campaigners along the lines ‘TERFs cause trans suicides’ (a claim frequently made by groups such as Stonewall and Mermaids).

Some of the women attending the event would demand that the police physically remove the protestors under the Public Order Act, force them to stay a much greater distance away. Then, a law would be passed stipulating that those objecting to the articulation of trans-sceptical beliefs would have to stand a minimum of 150 metres away from any event that the likes of Helen Joyce or JK Rowling were speaking at. Do you think this would be justified? What would be the implications of that for liberal democracy?

The above depicted scenario is now on the cusp of being enacted, in reality, but in relation to those who wish to demonstrate peacefully outside clinics against the practice of abortion. The Labour MP, Stella Creasy, a classic representative of the illiberal Culture Control Left, is presenting an amendment to the government’s Public Order Act designed to bring this about. It would create a criminal ‘offence of interference with access to or provision of abortion services’.

Interference is equated in her amendment not with physical harassment but rather in terms of seeking to ‘influence… attempts to inform about abortion services by any means including… verbal or written means.’ The provision states that the anti-abortion demonstrators could not be in a location that is ‘visible from a public highway’. In other words, the right to contest the issue of abortion would be effectively removed in this context. This amendment would not, however, apply to pro-abortionists picketing anti-abortionist conferences.

Similarly, in Northern Ireland and Scotland, legislation is pending to create ‘safe access zones’ for those working in or using abortion clinics. The tendency to effectively create ‘safe spaces’, as in universities, is being replicated in relation to other issues and in other contexts. As Philip Booth documented in his contribution to the IEA published, Having Your Say, the police and local authorities are intervening to restrict the rights of street preachers and activists through prosecution and other means. Muslim parents in Birmingham who object to their children being taught a pro LGBT +  perspective as part of ‘relationship education’ have been subject to court orders prohibiting them from campaigning near schools.

More recently, the Crown Prosecution Service, in justifying the prosecution of an Evangelist, John Dunn, has argued that: ‘There are references in the Bible that are simply no longer appropriate in a modern society and which would be deemed offensive if stated in public.’ The Thames Valley constabulary have said they will pursue as a ‘hate crime’ those who distribute or display materials that reproduce the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of what constitutes a woman.

The principal argument deployed concerning abortion is that the mere sight of opposed activists would be a violation of the ‘privacy’ of those entering and leaving the facilities concerned. It is also said that their ‘dignity’ is violated by such activities.

What actually constitutes such vague concepts is highly subjective; these values do not exist in objective, material reality. If these highly contestable concepts can be employed to severely curtail the activities of anti-abortionists, then why not in relation to virtually any other ethical, religious or political position? Could Conservative party delegates being abused with cries of ‘Tory scum’ not likewise demand left-wing activists be subjected to an exclusion zone 150 metres away from their party conference? Clearly, this would constitute a fundamental denial of the right to protest.

Another problem in this regard relates to public space and who has the right to do what on it? Obviously for liberals, activists for whatever cause do not have the right to enter the confines of privately owned or leased environs in order to articulate their views to those they wish to convert or annoy.

Whether we like it or not, all of us are forced through taxation to contribute to the upkeep of public highways and other spaces. The deal in a liberal democracy is that these are administered as far as is feasible in a politically non-partisan way. No one group of people get to have their own values enshrined as inherently morally or politically superior compared to those that seek to contest them. Once you get asymmetrical censorship and protection for certain beliefs and groups of people, the state has loaded the dice politically in favour of the perspectives it favours.

What we are witnessing through the adoption of the view that the law should protect people from the supposed psychological harm of anti-abortion and trans-sceptical viewpoints, is the beginning of the end for liberal democracy.

Once a society loses the will and belief to stand firm in defence of the right to free expression for all, as a matter of principle, then a profoundly alarming political transformation has been embarked upon. This ‘Conservative’ government’s Online Safety Bill will further exacerbate the problem. The police and CPS will be able to come after those they have judged to have subjectively caused ‘severe emotional upset’. Just imagine how that will be employed if and when the Left comes to power.

In order to have a politically pluralist society we all have to possess an adult self-denying ordinance about being ‘upset’, ‘offended’ by the speech of others. Once this is discarded politics becomes a fascistic ‘will to power’. This is where we are now headed.


Written by Marc Glendening

Marc Glendening is Head of Cultural Affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs

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