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Andrew Tettenborn: No safe space for Pro-Lifers


One of the stock jokes of the 1950s Ealing comedies involved slightly batty people saying things that everyone else, but not they themselves, knew were entirely inconsistent with each other. If events in the last couple of weeks are anything to go by, the Ealing Labour MP Rupa Huq looks set fair to revive this tradition, though this time the cause is deadly serious.

For some time now, pro-life, mainly Christian, protesters have kept vigil outside a Marie Stopes abortion clinic in one of the leafier parts of Ealing in west London. They make clear what they think of the clinic, and in a fairly original way: handing its clients teddy bears and calling them ‘mum’ on the way in, and suggesting the spiritual fate that awaits them as they emerge. The police decline to put a stop to it, on the understandable and commendable basis that the protesters – who incidentally are matched by a cohort of pro-abortion counter-demonstrators offering support to the institution and its customers – are not actually doing anything illegal.

Ealing Central and Acton MP Rupa Huq, overtly Muslim but simultaneously a pro-abortion activist, disapproves of the line taken by the protesters. That is her right. Much more dangerously, however, she is now taking steps to have them silenced using the heavy hand of the state. A couple of weeks ago she called for Parliament to ban any demonstrations outside clinics as part of its legislative initiative against domestic violence (!) Having been rightly rebuffed, she changed tack, and is now demanding that Ealing Council exercise municipal powers given to it to prevent gatherings of lager louts and drug dealers to create what she charmingly calls ‘safe spaces’ round all abortion clinics where any protests against them are barred by law.

It’s hard to know where to start. For one thing, it’s worth noting that Dr Huq’s view of freedom of speech is clearly rather selective. She wants to suppress anti-abortion demonstrations, despite having previously defended Bradford MP Naz Shah’s right to send poisonous anti-Semitic tweets and also forcefully asserted her right, as part of an alleged silent majority in Ealing, to demonstrate peacefully in favour of abortion on demand.

For another, rather like the petulant teenager who tells her parents to stop imposing their views on her when what she really means is that they are getting the better of the argument, Dr Huq seeks falsely to characterise the pro-life vigils and protests as a form of violence. The protesters, on this argument, are somehow to be regarded as using force to prevent clients getting into the clinic or compromising their safety. Quite how is not clear, though she does refer engagingly at one point to ‘weaponising rosary beads’ – an idea at which the mind boggles.

Scratch below the surface, moreover, and you find something else which is all too common in the liberal establishment. This is the idea that freedom of speech is all very well, but it must stop where it causes any kind of discomfort or distress to those who don’t share your views. Dr Huq herself lets the cat out of the bag when she says that her aim is to prevent abortion clients feeling ‘uncomfortable accessing services’. The right to abortion, itself controversial, has now apparently morphed into a right to have an abortion with a clear conscience, protected from criticism or adverse comment.

It never seems to strike the worthy Dr Huq that by saying this she seems to be admitting to a profound personal unhappiness with the whole idea of free expression and argument. Outside some university debating chamber, the very point of criticising the morality of what someone else is doing is to make them feel uncomfortable about it. Prevent this, and you are essentially saying that you are happy to allow free speech to those who disagree with you, provided it isn’t effective. Once there is a chance that your opponents may start winning the argument, then it’s open season for you to take steps forcibly to shut them up. That’s what Dr Huq is trying to do with respect to Ealing Council and the Marie Stopes clinic. Whether she will succeed in this remains to be seen: but one fears the omens for free speech are not good.

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Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as Ukip’s candidate in Bath.

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