Pavel Stroilov comments on the government’s new Coronavirus Bill.
Pavel is a political exile of Russia, having fled to the UK after his research as a historian put his life and liberty at risk. He then studied law at King’s College London and University of Law. He now works as a legal consultant for Christian Legal Centre.
Let us be very clear about what happened this week with the abortive imposition of DIY abortions under the pretext of fighting coronavirus. On Monday afternoon, the gov.uk website published an official legislative document, which drastically changed the substance of the law with immediate effect. The document read as follows:
The Abortion Act 1967 – Approval of a Class of Places
This approval supersedes the approval of 27 December 2018.
The Secretary of State makes the following approval in exercise of the powers
conferred by section 1(3) and (3A) 1of the Abortion Act 19672:
1. In this approval –
“home” means, in the case of a pregnant woman, the place in England where a
pregnant woman has her permanent address or usually resides or, in the case of a
registered medical practitioner, the place in England where a registered medical
practitioner has their permanent address or usually resides;
“approved place” means a hospital in England, as authorised under section 1(3) of
the Abortion Act 1967, or a place in England approved under that section.
Approval of class of place
2. The home of a registered medical practitioner is approved as a class of place for
treatment for the termination of pregnancy for the purposes only of prescribing the
medicines known as Mifepristone and Misoprostol to be used in treatment carried out
in the manner specified in paragraph 4.
3. The home of a pregnant woman who is undergoing treatment for the purposes of
termination of her pregnancy is approved as a class of place where the treatment for
termination of pregnancy may be carried out where that treatment is carried out in
the manner specified in paragraph 4.
4. The treatment must be carried out in the following manner-
a) the pregnant woman has-
i) attended an approved place;
ii) had a consultation with an approved place via video link, telephone
conference or other electronic means, or
iii) had a consultation with a registered medical practitioner via video link,
telephone conference or other electronic means; and
b) the pregnant woman is prescribed Mifepristone and Misoprostol to be taken for
the purposes of the termination of her pregnancy.
Director, Population Health
20 March 2020
1 Section 1(3A) was inserted by section 37(3) of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 (c. 37).
2 1967 c. 87.
Mr Davies’s signature was clearly visible on the pdf version published.
Pushed when national attention was elsewhere
These were the very DIY abortions on demand which the pro-death lobby had been lusting after for many years. As long as we had a properly functioning democracy, they had no success. Now that the voters have other things on their minds, it was imposed on us overnight – without debate, without vote, without publicity – insidiously slipped and shuffled into the pack of other measures we are told we need to survive. The moment was chosen very carefully – the day when everyone’s attention was completely consumed by Boris Johnson’s address to the nation announcing the lock-down. The calculation evidently was that nobody would notice, and once the wheels were in motion, it would be too late to protest.
Thankfully, this was not to be. The publication was spotted by a few pro-life groups (including Christian Concern), who promptly published protests. At some point overnight, one of those messages reached someone senior enough in the government to pull the brake. On Tuesday morning, the document was gone from the website, replaced by the inelegantly worded, obviously rushed notice:
“The information on this page has been removed because it was published in error.
“This was published in error. There will be no changes to abortion regulations.”
There was formal legislation
Do not be fooled by the understandable attempts to play this down. It was not an error of sending a wrong tweet: for a few hours, there was formal legislation in place which legalised DIY abortions. If, heaven forbid, such an abortion took place on Monday evening, it would have been legal. What has happened was not an administrative error. This was a disingenuous and sinister attempt by the pro-abortion forces to exploit the epidemic as a narrow opportunity to bypass democracy, and achieve their long-standing objective by the back door.
This is very serious in itself; but the significance of this extends beyond the all-important issue of abortion, wherever you stand on it. Our ability to cope with the coronavirus crisis depends entirely on people’s trust in the national leadership. It is remarkable how the country dutifully shut itself down on a say so of Boris Johnson (hardly the most non-controversial leader to appeal to all creeds). However, once the government attempts to exploit that crisis to implement an agenda which has nothing to do with coronavirus, that trust is lost. The consequences for the epidemic would be catastrophic. That would cost lives.
Whoever in the government has pulled the brake on the abortion coup d’état on Monday night deserves much credit for that. However, two further things need to happen before the trust can be restored.
Scandal must not be swept under the carpet
Firstly, this scandal must not be swept under the carpet as an ‘administrative error’. It must be thoroughly, transparently investigated. Those responsible for abuse of power, and for sabotaging the national effort to resist the dangerous epidemic, must be named and sacked without delay.
Secondly, the government’s Coronavirus Bill (and its wider ‘Coronavirus policy’) must be urgently reviewed to identify and remove all similar abuses. DIY abortions was not the only drastic measure there which had nothing whatsoever to do with coronavirus, and everything to do with stealing people’s liberties.
Doctors will have power to section people indefinitely
The Coronavirus Bill (which is being passed into law this week at breakneck speed) will, among other things, (1) authorise a forcible detention of people on mental health grounds (‘sectioning’) on the opinion of any one doctor (rather than two, as previously required) and (2) abolish the six-month time limit on ‘sectioning’. Any one doctor will have the power to lock you up in a lunatic asylum indefinitely – all in the interests of your own and others’ safety.
It is well-known, and self-evident, that forcible psychiatric detention is an area which is open to abuse in the absence of effective safeguards. In the Soviet Union, it was used simply as a tool to suppress political dissent. This may be an extreme example, but where is the guarantee that one rogue doctor or another will not, once in a while, abuse his newly found unlimited power? For very good reasons, we have had safeguards against that in our law. Now they are being urgently abolished – supposedly as an obstacle to our survival of the epidemic. How exactly are they such an obstacle?
It should be stressed that this has nothing to do with increasing doctors’ capacity to deal with coronavirus patients. A psychiatrist is not much help in treating a respiratory disease. In fact, he would be as useful as a gynaecologist. Just like gynaecologists can safely continue to supervise (and hopefully, sometimes refuse to authorise) abortions, there is no reason why psychiatrists cannot carry on doing their usual job – which includes, most importantly, protecting people from arbitrary detention on unsound psychiatric grounds. Those duties are expendable luxuries, but are vital safeguards of liberty.
Powers to issue warrants for surveillance
Another frightening power-grab in the Coronavirus Bill is the expansion of the power to appoint temporary judicial commissioners, with the powers to issue warrants for surveillance, under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. The threat to civil liberty is obvious; and this has nothing to do with coronavirus.
Given those examples, one inevitably looks more sceptically at the idea that the government knows best about its other measures which ostensibly have something to do with coronavirus. Things like prolonging local councillors’ term in office for a whole year without a democratic mandate; police power to detain anyone for up to 48 hours on suspicion of a threat to public health; Ministers’ authority to ban mass gatherings; or court trials by skype. Are all those things really necessary? Or have some civil servants simply been waiting (heaven knows for how long) for a convenient moment to introduce them without provoking mass protests on the streets?
For example, skype trials in court sound sensible at the time of an epidemic, but the very first reported trial is a rather frightening one. That is a Court of Protection trial last week to decide the fate of an anonymous man in his ‘70s, whose GP wants to switch off his life support to let him die ‘in dignity’, and whose family objects. Remember all the debates and protests over the cases of Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans in this country, and Vincent Lambert in France? Under the new regime, decisions on life and death cases of this kind are being made on a skype call. No proper trial, no ‘army’ of protesters, no real media coverage. It was only reported as a technological curiosity – the first major trial taking place by skype.
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance
These and other measures are meant to be introduced only on a temporary basis. There is a subset clause in the Bill, whereby these new laws will automatically lose force after two years unless Parliament votes to extend them beyond that period. Amendments are being debated to shorten that period. However, this does not answer the concern that some of the most drastic innovations in the Act are clearly not necessary to contain coronavirus at all. If in those two years, someone is wrongly ‘sectioned’ in a lunatic asylum, it is small comfort to them that this practice will cease in 2022. Further, as a general rule of constitutional history, temporary limitations on liberty tend to become permanent whenever they are convenient for the state. We still live today with all sorts of draconian laws introduced as a matter of emergency after 11 September 2001. Come 2022, the Coronavirus Bill powers may also be extended on whatever pretext. Indeed, section 90 of the Bill even permits the extension of those powers without a vote in Parliament.
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Many dictatorships originate in people’s panicked enthusiasm for drastic measures to deal with a genuine crisis. Putin’s regime in Russia, for example, took hold because people trusted their democratically elected president to do whatever it takes to defeat the threat of terrorism. Eventually, when Putin responded to another terrorist attack by replacing regional elections with appointed governors, that trust was largely lost – but it was too late. It is no surprise that when we see fairly similar moves attempted in this country, our trust in the government hangs in the balance.
At least in terms of public trust, the next few days will be crucial for the government’s efforts to control the epidemic. If the government is serious about it, its legislation must be cleansed of all disingenuous attempts to take advantage. And if they are not serious about it, nobody else will be.