I have outlined in many blogs a unique perspective on libertarianism—and one not universally shared—although I believe my argument has been welcomed as a springboard for debate. I have made clear that actually I am a social conservative, and libertarianism is, for me, not contradictory to the traditions of England in the pre-war period. Then, social conservatism and freedom from too much state intervention were both the norm. I argue that conservative traditions are the very reason why the state was kept out: strong families do not require state intervention.
I do not believe in equality between the sexes (let’s avoid the excruciatingly poor English that uses the word “gender” to mean something other than a grammatical category of noun). Men and women are different—and I regard libertine behaviour by men as normal, but libertine behaviour by women as corrosive of civilisation itself. The family is the bedrock of society, and I see women who support the preservation of the family and attempt to keep their menfolk as playing an important role in keeping society together (and warding off the emerging reality that our individual lives are all subject to state intervention). I believe that decent women will overlook the peccadilloes of their husbands, and, as long as their husbands go back to them each night, will not pry into their natural philandering ways.
Consequently, as I see family values as the foundation of libertarianism—we are not individuals vs. the state, but families vs. the state, as individuation of society leads to state power—I cannot support abortion on demand. I might, in very restricted circumstances, allow it, but not the many millions of terminations that routinely take place today. I don’t expect many libertarians to agree with me. But the situation today is entirely different to that that obtained in the 1950s: no-one gets pregnant accidentally. With contraceptive pills, morning-after pills, and even the so-called abortion pill (RU486), I don’t see why abortion is needed. In a free society, people still have duties as well as rights, and having gone to considerable trouble to get pregnant—and getting pregnant is not easy—there are duties and consequences that flow therefrom.
However, where I do expect libertarians to agree with me is on the right to protest against abortion. The Spiked Online group of journalists appear libertarian in many of their instincts. I remember attending talks by many of these people back in their Marxist days in the early 1990s. Yet Ann Furedi, former Marxist, writer for Spiked Online, and head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, now opposes the right of opponents of abortion to protest outside clinics! She references J S Mill in her opposition to such protests.
Her recent article argues that “bubble zones” should be created outside abortion clinics within which demonstrations should be illegal—presumably she wants state power to enforce this. While she admits the number of protesters is vanishingly small, the small number of protests that take place should lead to arrests, according to her.
Ann Furedi is trying to have things both ways. She says:
Another unfortunate and predictable consequence is that many in the media have been prone to present the women bpas is defending as ‘victims’—firstly for needing abortion, secondly for facing bullying and harassment at the clinic’s entrance. This is just the image of women that bpas has fought hard to counter. In truth, most bpas clients are ordinary women in need of straightforward, simple clinical treatment in a place where their privacy and confidentiality is respected and they are answerable only to those who provide their care.
In other words, she has long claimed that abortion is a straightforward medical procedure, akin to sorting out an ingrown toenail, and that the women involved are not “victims” and should not be subject to the type of counselling that assumes there is a moral problem with a decision to have an abortion. In other words, abortion is a normal decision made by a grown-up woman who doesn’t need her hand held. She goes on:
When women say they are reduced to tears and feel unable to cope with the challenges made to them by protesters, when they say they feel vulnerable and distressed, this is not an expression of their weakness as women, nor is it evidence of the alleged awfulness of making abortion decisions. No, even the strongest among us can feel brittle and scared when we are about to undergo a medical procedure – even one that is not as emotionally loaded as abortion.
Clearly she is also arguing that such women are too vulnerable to be able to give short shrift to protesters outside abortion clinics. I would argue that, reading between the lines, she does look down on the women attending abortion clinics, and views them as fragile victims who should never be confronted with the fact that other people regard abortion as evil.
I could imagine a libertarian perspective—not mine—that said that abortion should be legal on demand, but that demonstrations immediately outside the clinic must be accepted, and the women should be prepared to run the gauntlet of protest if they wish to kill the foetuses inside them. I would also argue that Ann Furedi and other employees of BPAS should be arrested (and imprisoned) for wasting police time if they ever call for police assistance in an unwarranted fashion: there is a law against harassment, but the bar for a harassment suit is necessarily high in a free society, and the police should not be summoned to prevent a woman from facing protest alone.
Ann Furedi says:
Women attending an abortion clinic should not have to face anyone whose intention is to interfere with them or engage with them. They should not need to face people on the street asking about their circumstances or decisions. They should especially not need to face individuals with banners, placards and cameras, determined to ‘counsel’ them about what an abortion involves. A clinic entrance is not a debating forum or a street theatre. Bpas clients are not seeking a political discussion about abortion with anyone; they are seeking advice or treatment from a provider that they have chosen, and they should be able to access that service without people arguing that their decision is wrong or right.
Women having an abortion should not have to face anyone seeking to engage with them? Time to get out the cotton wool, girls!
All this is based on a distinction between “the right to freedom of speech” and “the right to freedom of protest”. Ann Furedi argues:
Traditionally, within the classical liberal tradition of John Stuart Mill, the right to protest was understood to be ‘contingent’, and as such is different to freedom of speech, which is ‘absolute’….
Freedom of speech, as properly understood (that is, the freedom to state one’s views for the purpose of being understood), cannot curtail the freedom of others because it impinges on no one but the speaker. It is sometimes described as ‘self-regarding’, in that its purpose is self-expression. For Mill, the premise for freedom of speech was ‘affirmation and respect for the individual’s moral agency and autonomy’. In short, to take away someone’s ability to express their thoughts through speech was to deny them a means to express their internal contemplation—their inner life….
Freedom to protest is different. It can impede others’ rights and freedoms; indeed, that may be its very intention—and when it does, the question of whose freedom triumphs rests in the balance of a number of factors. The law may limit the right to protest by curbing access to certain areas; or brute force may impose limits, as was the case in clashes between fascists and anti-fascists in the 1930s, or between loyalists and republicans in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s—or, indeed, in a milder way by local residents outside the bpas clinic in Southwark in London recently.
Clearly, the right to free speech, which includes private speech, is absolute. To be arrested for private comments would be monstrous in a free society. The right to freedom of protest is, as she points out, subjects to considerations of appropriate venue and timing. An anti-abortion protest that insisted on blocking the M25 every Friday would be tiresome—as it would go well beyond the form of protest required to make a political point and would disrupt other people’s legitimate activities.
The reason why this consideration does not apply to an abortion clinic is that there is a debate over where abortion is a legitimate activity. Protesters outside BPAS centres are not seeking to make political points—but, rather, to persuade the women not to kill their foetuses. It is a last chance to appeal to the girls to do the right thing. I think the legalisation of abortion in 1967—a legalisation the terms of which are commonly ignored by doctors who hand out abortion on demand (which is not legal)—did not envisage a situation where abortion was to be regarded as a normal medical procedure. It was legalised as a bad last resort—and nothing should be done (including the criminalisation of protest outside abortion clinics) to imply to the girls that nothing abnormal is going on inside the clinics.
Ann Furedi’s clinics offer destruction of life: while I don’t wish to attend protests myself, I do admire those who feel strongly enough to do so. If they persuade even one girl to turn back, then their work is worthwhile.
The abortion issue is, for me, one of the key problems with Spiked. On many questions, their views have evolved since the winding up of the Revolutionary Communist Party (of which Ann Furedi was a member) in 1994. Yet on this issue (and on immigration), we see unreconstructed propaganda from the 1970s—possibly because Ann Furedi makes money from abortion. It would make more sense in the context of the evolving views of Spiked to tell the girls to take charge of their own fertility—by using contraceptives and morning after pills—and to accept the consequences of their own actions otherwise. These “girls” are meant to be adult women, but as long as there are never any consequences to their chosen forms of behaviour, they will remain infantilised, adult-sized girls, which calls into question the whole of the feminist agenda.