Two major setbacks for freedom of conscience and assembly

In the middle of the current crisis, it is easy to miss other stories. One is that we have had a bad few days for freedom of conscience, speech and association in various parts of Europe. For example, on March 12th last week, both the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and the European Court of Human Rights refused to hear cases that would protect the freedoms of those opposed to abortion.

The first refers to a Public Space Protection Order introduced in April 2018 by the London Borough of Ealing.  The order bans activities such as public prayer or offers of help to women considering abortion in the vicinity of abortion clinics in the Ealing area. The ban was challenged by Alina Dulgheriu, a young mother who changed her mind about having an abortion after speaking to pro-life activists near an abortion facility.

Ms Dulgheriu said the ban imposed by Ealing Borough violates fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. She challenged the Ealing Council’s order twice unsuccessfully until her case reached the Supreme Court, which has now rejected her appeal.

The second and even more serious case involving two midwifes working in Sweden who said they would not help to carry out abortions on the ground of conscientious objection. Sweden, which has the reputation of being tolerant and liberal, is one of the very few countries where conscientious objection to abortion is not recognised by law.

The midwives in question,  Ellinor Grimmark and Linda Steen said that they could not practice their profession if were obliged to help with abortions by their employers. They had lost several cases in Sweden and now the European Court of Human Rights has declared the two applications inadmissible, confirming that the position of the Swedish authorities.

The Court’s decision deprives those women of the right to conscientious objection and it is even more worrying as it could be extended to other medical professionals.

The European Centre for Law and Justice claimed the decision represents a “moral regression” and a complete departure from previous judgements of the Court. It has also expressed doubts about the impartiality of the three judges involved in this case, as one of them is a past member of the Swedish Gender Equality Agency while another has been involved in feminist activities since the 1980s.

The aforementioned Ms. Dulgheriu is now considering bringing her case to European Court of Human Rights, but the decision concerning the midwives is not encouraging.

In both the British and the Swedish cases we see that the right to have an abortion is now considered so fundamental that it prevails when there is a conflict with other important rights such as freedom of conscience, or speech, or of assembly. Abortion is now so established in our culture that everything else is deemed secondary and has to be sacrificed.  The recent court decisions confirm that the slippery slope is real, once the right to life is infringed all other fundamental rights will inevitably suffer.