ADF International

The right to protest in the UK has been under threat since long before COVID-19.

“To be “seriously annoying” is about to be made a crime,” writes Lois McLatchie, a communications officer for ADF International.

The arrest of women assembling at Sarah’s vigil last weekend has caused many to reflect on our country’s democratic integrity. As a bill to crack down on protest hit the House of Commons this week, many were astonished at the extent of powers to be awarded to police to control and restrict protest. Outside of pandemic conditions, such legislation would seem surely unthinkable.

To be “seriously annoying” is about to be made a crime.

But this is not the first time that the right to protest, specifically for women, has been damagingly curtailed. And last time, it had nothing to do with the coronavirus.

“Enough is enough on clinic protests.” So read the headline on a campaign page of Abortion Rights UK, which I came across on Sunday. The webpage, which had vanished by Monday morning, calls on the public to petition the government to ban groups from gathering to even silently pray, or offer help to women, outside of abortion facilities.

Their petition was in tandem with the wider “Back Off” campaign, which is seeking to roll out bans on charitable pro-life activity across the country.

The hypocrisy is staggering. While preserving protest for the societal majority, the voices of the marginalised – those whose speech needs protecting the most – have been forcibly hushed.

The face of the resistance, in this parallel case of clampdown, is a single Romanian mother. Abandoned, alone and pregnant eight years ago, Alina Dulgheriu felt like she had no choice but to face an abortion that she didn’t want. An offer of help from a volunteer outside the abortion facility changed her life. Having benefited from the material, financial and emotional support on offer, Alina herself later became a pavement volunteer – until such “protest” became banned from the street outside the facility. Alina has tirelessly fought through the courts to overturn the ban, hoping to reopen the offer of help for future women facing her difficult situation. Her voice has been repeatedly silenced.

Pro-life groups who operate outside abortion facilities are not popular at present. It is not difficult to see why. Often portrayed as the UK’s answer to Westboro Baptist, they’ve gained a reputation as judgemental ideologues brandishing rosary beads. In reality, this dated portrayal is false. Such tactics would hardly assist today’s groups in their stated goal – to support and empower women to choose life for their babies. The evidential basis for defining offers of help as “harassment” is paltry. The Home Secretary rejected a demand for a ban in 2018, declaring that it would be “disproportionate” given that upsetting incidents involving pro-life volunteers were “rare”. There was already existing legislation, he said – such as the Public Order Act 1986 – in place that restricted protest activities which caused harm to others.

No one working for a cause can rule out anomalies: there is not a movement in history – charitable, activist, or otherwise – which has been free from marginal extremists ready to poison the well. But some light reflection prompts the realisation that, of course, harassment is already illegal. That being the case, we are entitled to ask why the abortion industry and its political chorus are so insistent on further legal clampdowns.

And their clamour for restrictions is not just illogical but also hypocritical. The very same pro-abortion group who claimed that “enough is enough on clinic protests” also issued tweets regarding the events of the weekend. “The right to protest peacefully is a human right,” they wrote. “THIS IS NOT A DRILL…Our right to protest hangs in the balance!!”

The current desire to assemble, stand up and speak out over Sarah Everard’s tragedy is understandable. Human rights groups have given their verdict on the proposed curtailment of the right to stand up for what you believe in in light of the disruption of the vigil. More than 150 organisations have warned ministers that a new law handing police tougher powers to restrict protesters would be “an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of citizens”. Perhaps the criticisms come better late than never.

We know strikingly little about her, aside from her name, her face, and the tragic circumstances of her death. And so, Sarah has become all of us – an emblem of every single woman who should not have to fear attack simply when walking home. Of every single woman who is valued, whose voice matters. That’s why fears of the societal outcry being silenced are so deeply sensitive. But if this movement is about all of us, it must really be about all of us.

That includes women who reject police brutality. Racial injustice. Lockdown. Sexual violence. Abortion.

Enough is enough. Human rights must be for everyone – even those with whom we disagree.

Lois can be found on Twitter at @LoisMcLatch.

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Faith-based legal advocacy organization that protects fundamental freedoms and promotes the inherent dignity of all people.