Stella Creasy is a high-profile elected public official; a member of parliament; a lawmaker who wields far more clout than most of us could ever dream of. As an architect of legislation designed to end restrictions on abortion in Northern Ireland, Creasy has found herself on the end of some rough stuff from pro-life campaigners.
As Elizabeth Oldfield so elegantly noted last week, the debate around abortion inflames passions and polarises opinion. For as long as one side believes in the sacred principle of women’s autonomy, and the other the sanctity of the life of the unborn, there can be no rapprochement. That’s the hard truth. But the campaigners against Creasy appear at least to have acted lawfully and peaceably throughout, even if their message has been hard-hitting and their tactics designed to shock.
Now, Creasy is perfectly entitled to defend her corner against her critics and advance her arguments for driving the legislation through parliament. That would be the sensible thing to do. But, of course, honest debate and disagreement around contentious issues are, in this day and age, no longer permissible. Someone somewhere has to be found guilty of peddling ‘hate’, or something.
So Creasy decided against entering into a reasoned dialogue with her opponents, and instead chose to solicit the assistance of the Metropolitan Police in having the protest shut down and the perpetrators run out of town. You read that right. A member of parliament, a legislator, a public representative at the highest level, demanded that the police intervene to prevent peaceable individuals from publicly campaigning for a position with which she disagreed.
Twitter-can you get me the CEO of @CCUK_Direct advertising? how much did you get for this crap? @metpoliceuk still think this is just 'free speech' and not harassment of women in walthamstow? Am sorry for the graphic images and @patel4witham am reaching out to you for help now. pic.twitter.com/rOG7Gc3App
— stellacreasy (@stellacreasy) September 30, 2019
Creasy further called on the home secretary to bring about a change in the law so as to “deal with these people”, and publicly lambasted the agency responsible for hosting “this crap” on their billboard. Naturally the agency offered a full apology for its sins and promptly removed the poster, though not before it had been defaced. For good measure, Twitter suspended the campaigners’ account.
According to Creasy, the campaign amounted to “harassment”, not just towards her, but the whole of Walthamstow, and those responsible were “bullies” and “abusers”. Needless to say, her fellow MPs and various celebrities rushed to express their support for her position. Even the Speaker weighed in, branding the protests “vile, unconscionable and despicable”.
To Creasy’s irritation, the Met Police responded that no crime had been committed and it was, therefore, unable to act against the campaigners — though how long it will hold this line under intense political pressure remains to be seen. Local council officials, on the other hand, were quick to respond to Creasy’s demands, using something called a ‘community protection notice’ to order the removal of the campaigners’ public education display. One can only assume that council officers concluded that the people of Walthamstow needed ‘protection’ against exposure to an alternative viewpoint.
Even if we were to acknowledge that passers-by might experience some queasiness at images depicting the reality of abortion, the difficulty here for Creasy and her supporters is that, if we were to follow the supposed logic of their argument, they do not consider the foetus to be fully human in the first place — so it’s rather difficult to understand their objection. Stranger still is the fact that the community protection notice issued in this case instructed campaigners to cease displaying not only images of “aborted foetuses”, but “images of unborn foetuses” too. Quite why anyone should be offended by a normal image of a foetus in the womb is anybody’s guess.
Much of what has happened in Walthamstow recently transcends the debate about abortion. Stella Creasy chose to push through an abortion law that many people oppose bitterly, which is, of course, her right. But those campaigning against her have, in response, merely exercised their own right to lobby her directly, to bring her actions to the attention of her constituents, and to ask her to think again. Their message was hard-hitting, but their right to campaign in favour of their views is no less valid for that.
There are the usual double standards at play here. No doubt many of those who agreed with Creasy’s claim that the campaigners were guilty of harassment cracked a wry smile when witnessing similar actions targeting other MPs, such as the billboard campaign orchestrated by the anti-Brexit group Led by Donkeys. Presumably they consider that kind of personalised targeting acceptable. One person’s harassment is, it would appear, another person’s legitimate crusade.
“You don’t protect free speech by allowing people to abuse it,” Creasy told the BBC’s Politics Live programme. How one even begins to dissect such a self-contradictory statement is beyond me. Perhaps we should leave it to John Stuart Mill, who wrote in On Liberty: “Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.”
We are still, just about, a free country. And — how tragic it is that we even need to remind ourselves of this — living in a free country means accepting that others have a right to campaign for their deeply-held beliefs, however strongly the rest of us might disagree with them.
Moreover, those who stand for public office have an extra responsibility to accept that they will, from time to time, be subjected to protests of a robust and targeted nature. That’s democracy. If launching a campaign designed to persuade an MP to change her mind constitutes ‘harassment’ or ‘bullying’, and if it means that the full weight of the authorities will be brought to bear on ‘offenders’, then we’re all in trouble.
MPs cannot demand exemption from scrutiny or criticism just because the issue at hand is one that evokes strong emotions. If Stella Creasy desires power without accountability, she is in the wrong job. Whatever our views on abortion, freedom and liberty demand that we have a duty to stand with the campaigners in Walthamstow.