"It is extremely cruel to persecute in this brief life those who do not think the way we do". In his Treatise on Toleration Voltaire recognises the need for us all to accept that we have different views, and our right to hold them without punishment.
I work for BPAS, an abortion provider, talking to women about their feelings around an unplanned pregnancy and supporting them as they explore their options. There are no typical women who visit us, nor are there any standard reasons why they may decide to end their pregnancy. There isn't one rule to fit all. Women decide abortion is the right choice for them for reasons as varied as they are themselves. It is an intensely personal decision, and women make peace with what they decide in the way that is best for them. Even those women who find their decision relatively straightforward will still have to undergo the physical reality of their decision. Our role at BPAS is to make this experience as dignified and humane as possible. Women deserve nothing less.
What they do not deserve are anti-abortion protesters standing outside the clinic they attend waving placards and shouting insults at them. Abort67 is an anti-abortion group - a collection of like-minded individuals who see fit to gather outside BPAS clinics and inflict their views on the women trying to access our services. They wave banners with explicit pictures of foetuses and shout at the women as they enter. They have a camera set up on a tripod, which gives the impression they are filming or photographing those entering and leaving the building. We don't know what images have been recorded and what they are used for but the end result is the women seeking our help often feeling scared and intimidated.
Abort67 are perfectly entitled to believe abortion is wrong and to make this known to the wider public. Their website claims they want to, "when the time is right... make an example of those who attack the integrity of pro-lifers they know they can't beat in honest debate." But standing outside and shouting "murderer" isn't honest debate. Honest debate would be tackling the ethics of abortion with our chief executive on the radio, or lobbying elected representatives for changes to the law. Honest debate isn't staging regular protests outside our clinics, which do nothing to prevent women from seeking a perfectly legal medical procedure - but do make it more distressing and difficult.
Those of us who work in the clinics know that this form of protest isn't about stopping abortion - because it clearly doesn't prevent women seeking it and never has. It is designed simply to cause as much distress to women as possible on what is already a difficult day in their lives. Freedoms need to be balanced. Abort67 should absolutely enjoy their freedom to voice their views - but not at the expense of the freedom of those who are trying to access care. And it's the freedoms of the latter that are being eroded.
We are a pro-choice country that overwhelmingly believes women should be able to make decisions about their own bodies, their families, the choice when to have children and how many to have. If Abort67 wants to turn the tide of opinion, they should be brave and pursue upfront public engagement and political strategies - just as those who campaigned for women's access to abortion in the first place did. Loitering at the doors and gates of abortion clinics hoping to persecute and punish pregnant women is the path only those who are "extremely cruel" would choose.
Follow Cath Sutton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@bpas1968