Leading Article: Unacceptable protests against abortion

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PARLIAMENT last legislated on abortion three years ago. There was a passionate debate, during which MPs were freed from party control to follow their consciences. Many must have faced difficult choices, for abortion is not a simple issue, bound up as it is with life, death, religious belief and human rights.

The new law did not satisfy everyone, and critics are entitled to make their case via powerful public and Parliamentary lobbying. However, the arrival of militant anti-abortionists from America who plan to make women run the gauntlet of their protest should play no part in such advocacy. Whatever the national debate, the sites of abortion clinics are not the right places to conduct the argument in a mature democracy.

Anti-abortion protest in the United States has grown increasingly violent, including the use of firebombs and acid attacks on clinics. Earlier this month the means finally discredited the ends when a doctor was shot dead at his abortion clinic in Florida.

Britain has already seen harbingers of this militant action. In 1989 and 1990 hundreds of protesters, including a Roman Catholic priest, were arrested after going too far during demonstrations instigated by Operation Rescue, the self- styled 'Green Berets' of the anti-abortion movement. Today sees a revival of that strategy at a London clinic, apparently to be followed by others. Expect to see frightened women, intimidated by shouts of 'Don't let them kill your baby' and lurid posters. Expect fervent protesters chaining themselves to block entrances of clinics and stop the 'murder'. A danger is that anger could boil over into violence and vandalism.

Britain does not have to follow the example of the US. Across the Atlantic polarisation on the issue may have arisen partly because the matter has been settled by adversarial process in the Supreme Court rather than, as in Britain, in an elected assembly which can better claim to reflect public opinion.

When they last legislated, MPs cut the upper time limit for abortions from 28 to 24 weeks, leaving the possibility of later abortion only when a mother faces permanent injury to physical or mental health. The fact that the 1967 Act was amended shows that Parliament will from time to time draw the line at a different place. Scientific advance will almost certainly lead to a further rethink. The anti-abortion lobby is listened to, is effective and easily finds MPs to introduce Private Member's bills.

Parliament and rallies, not abortion clinics, are the proper focus for the protests of opposition. However, if anti- abortionists adopt unreasonable tactics, the police are adequately armed with laws controlling obstruction and restricting picketing. They should not hesitate to use these provisions, lest imported methods subvert the long-debated will of Parliament. Equally important, women should know that they can have abortions within the law without fear of intimidation or more distress than they will in any case experience.