New laws could define pro-life actions as 'violence against women'. The implications for free speech should concern us all

Imagine a world where opposing abortion was not just a matter of opinion, but instead constituted a criminal offence.

If certain trends in the European Union continue, that world might be closer than you think.

In the European Parliament last month, my fellow MEPs overwhelmingly voted to back an interim report by the Civil Liberties and Justice Committee. The report, which focuses on protecting women from domestic abuse, forms the basis for the European Parliament’s recommended guidance to the European Commission for relevant forthcoming pieces of draft legislation.

The report’s aims may seem innocuous. But look closely and it becomes clear the document is far from anodyne. On page 10 it states that the EU:

“Strongly affirms that the denial of sexual and reproductive health and rights services, including safe and legal abortion, is a form of violence against women and girls.”

Now that the parliament has approved the report, it goes back to the European Commission who will then see its recommendations incorporated into draft legislation. Soon, there could be EU law which classes “denial of … reproductive rights” as a form of violence.

The potential consequences for EU member states are worrying. And even though Brexit will probably happen before any new policy takes effect, that does not necessarily mean this country will be unaffected. The EU could determine that as a condition for bilateral trade deals with non-EU countries, any partner country adheres to an arbitrary set of standards on a host of social issues, including abortion. For that jurisdiction, failure to meet those standards may result either in unfavourable terms of trade or even denial of access to the single market altogether.

Ultimately, it’s hard to predict what the proposal will mean in practice; but the worst-case scenario is truly alarming. It could mean that if you work in public policy, and as a cost-saving measure decide to cut funding for an abortion clinic, that could be deemed violence against women.

Perhaps, even, those campaigning for a reduction in the term limits for abortion – or against the laws permitting late-term abortion for disability –  could be considered as conspiring to commit violence against women. In Northern Ireland’s case, it risks criminalising an entire country’s laws. The measure has serious and potentially far-reaching consequences for our freedom.

Whatever your views are on abortion, put them to one side – this particular report is criminalising ideas and views. It smacks of a small coterie of decision-makers based in Brussels, detached from the realities on the ground, telling others that their views are unacceptable and possibly criminal.

So can it be stopped? In theory, yes; and I know I am not the only MEP who is seriously alarmed by the implications of the report. But the likelihood is slim. EU legislation is nearly always approved by the European Parliament. To attempt to stop something in the EU is like running against a gale-force wind. The layers of administration and government mean the odds are stacked in their favour. Of course, we can try to lobby MEPs, which occasionally proves worthwhile. But often this is futile.

Freedom of expression and freedom of religion help to make a functioning democracy. They are sacrosanct even when we come across those who hold different views to our own. And if any organisation should be defending these freedoms, it is the European Union.

Steven Woolfe is a Member of the European Parliament for the North West England region