While the Labour MP was eight-months pregnant she was publicly harassed by anti-abortion organisation, as a result of her role in the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland. Now on maternity leave, she's still fighting to change hate crime legislation to offer women greater protection
‘Back in September, CBR-UK (Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform) were encouraging people to target me, saying that I needed to be stopped. I received messages telling me I was a baby killer. CBR-UK even put up billboards in my local Walthamstow town centre, one of which was a 20ft-high picture of my head next to a dead baby. I was eight-months pregnant at the time and it was the same age as my unborn baby. It would be bizarre if I wasn’t affected by that.
The group also focused on my previous miscarriages and called me a hypocrite for being pregnant, suggesting I should have had an abortion to be consistent. I found it a very lonely experience dealing with miscarriage, so I spoke out to be able to tell other women they weren’t alone. The CBR used that to further its own aims.
I refused to accept their campaign as a legitimate protest, because it was not. Nobody has a right on any issue to try and intimidate, shut down and harass somebody into silence. If this had been about my skin colour or sexuality, people would have called it a hate crime, but because it was about women’s right to choose what happens to their own body, there’s a blind spot and it was viewed as a free speech issue.
But when you incite people to be abusive, where do people think it leads. We’ve seen what these groups have caused in other countries, such as the shootings and violence around Planned Parenthood clinics. If we allow this kind of harassment to become normalized in British politics, then it’s a very dangerous road to go down. Even the PM Boris Johnson dismissed a female MP who was crying about how frightened she was regarding the impact of hate speech.
The people who are affected most when free speech is abused are those whose voices aren’t heard as often – women and ethnic minorities. I see young campaigners from those communities and think, ‘You’re going to change the world’, but then these activists look at what’s happening to people like me and decide entering politics is not for them. Our public life and decision-making will be all the poorer for it – this culture is really toxic.
Last year I was told by two Home Secretaries that we didn’t need national hate crime legislation because powers are in place to deal with these groups – my experience shows that this is clearly not the case, so that’s why we need to change the law. Right now, women are protected in the workplace from discrimination and harassment, but as soon as we step out onto the street, we’re not protected. We need the Law Commission to review hate crime, and I’m working with a range of organisations to close the gap that we currently have in hate crime legislation.’