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One of my close relatives was forced into having abortion, says Lord Michael Farmer

The House of Lords has heard that there is active disdain for the role pro-life charities play in helping women to continue their pregnancies and step away from the pressures “pushing them down” the route of abortion.

The comments were made by Lord Michael Farmer during a debate in the House of Lords on Tuesday on the controversial ‘Public Order Bill’ which would introduce censorship zones outside abortion centres in Britain.

On 18 October, MPs voted by 297 Ayes to 110 Nos in support of an amendment to the Public Order Bill to introduce the zones around abortion centres nationwide. The zones would make it a criminal offence to protest or pray outside places offering abortions. The Bill has now reached the House of Lords, which heard strong opposition to Clause 9 (the abortion buffer zones clause) from a cross-party line-up of Peers.

Speaking out against the Bill yesterday, Lord Farmer, the 77-year-old British businessman, former treasurer of the Conservative Party, and life peer in the House of Lords, highlighted the problem of abortion coercion – pointing to the devastating experience of his own close family member.

Lord Farmer claimed that incidences of harassment outside abortion centres is “rare”, pointing to a 2018 review undertaken by the Home Office.

“A thorough Home Office review in 2018 found that police intervention into pro-life activity is very infrequently necessary and incidences of harassment outside abortion centres is rare. 

“Volunteers are mainly engaged in silent prayer or handing out leaflets offering charitable support to women who would like to be able to continue their pregnancies but feel powerless to do so without financial or practical help”.

He pointed to a 2022 poll conducted by the BBC which found that “15% of women were coerced into having an abortion by partners or family members”.

Going on to highlight a personal family story, he said: “One of my own close relatives became pregnant while still living in her parents’ home, and was forced to go down that route (of abortion)”.

“As a society, we are rightly concerned about coercion in relationships, and value the role of the voluntary sector in helping to identify cases. Yet, at present, there is active disdain for the role pro-life charities play in helping women step away from the people and pressures that are pushing them down the abortion route”.

He continued: “One might say there is cultural coercion; an underlying assertion that abortion is the only plausible route for a pregnant woman in certain circumstances to go down. Where there is potential or actual disability, the medical profession can actively seek to influence a woman in that direction. Is a genuinely pro-choice to abortion really served by Clause 9?” 

The BBC-commissioned poll on reproductive coercion, published in March, prompted calls for the UK Health Secretary to treat coerced abortion as a public health concern. The poll, conducted by Savanta ComRes, revealed that 15% of women aged between 18 and 44 had experienced pressure to abort their child when they did not wish to do so.

The polling referenced by the politician also stated that five per cent of women had faced physical violence intended to induce a miscarriage.

Speaking in the House, Lord Farmer said the Bill represented “the most significant shift away from English law’s presumption of individual liberty and freedom of expression”.

He continued: “If passed into law, Clause 9 would mark the most significant shift away form English law’s presumption of individual liberty and freedom of expression in the interest of ruthlessly censoring pro-life views”.

“My main concern with this Bill is the ideologically inspired clause nine, which has just been spoken about. Introduced as an opposition party amendment in the other place, of those who voted, all Labour MPs registered their support for the right to protest disruptively by voting against this Bill at Second Reading and also all voted for pro-life protestors’ rights to be withdrawn.

“This is not just hypocritical; it exposes the cultural authoritarianism behind those who claim to want the freedom to protest.”

Another politician who spoke against the legislation was former Police Ombudsman, Baroness Nuala O’Loan, who also addressed the March for their Lives in Belfast in September 2019.

“A blanket ban around abortion clinics my Lords would be disproportionate, it would be a denial of the right to the freedom of expression, it is unnecessary and it could even be harmful,” she said.

Lord David Frost, who served as a Minister for State at the Cabinet Office between March and December 2021, also blasted the Bill.

“I don’t think it can be right for this Parliament to make it illegal for example to quote ‘seek to influence’ in sub clause A, or ‘persistently occupy’ in clause B, or ‘inform or attempt to inform’ in clause E. And that is true whether it is in the vicinity of an abortion clinic or anywhere else”, the former Brexit negotiator said.

Liberal Democrat Peer, Lord Beith, also voiced his views on the legislation, which could hand pro-life protestors who breach the law a jail sentence. He said that while he had concerns with some “protest tactics” used by pro-life campaigners at abortion centres, he said he “cannot support a clause which criminalises a person who ‘seeks to influence, provides information, or expresses opinion’. 

“This is the most profound restriction on free speech I have ever seen in any UK legislation and I could not support it if it remains in its present form,” he added.

Supporters of the divisive legislation claim that women have faced intimidation from pro-life protestors and people praying outside places performing abortions, while pro-life groups including Be Here for Me argue the presence of pro-lifers offer hope and alternatives to vulnerable women.

Abortion is permitted up to 24 weeks of pregnancy in Britain, while it can also be performed on an unborn child without time limit if they have been diagnosed prenatally with a disability.

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