Texans are being deputised as abortion 'bounty hunters' in an affront to human rights worthy of The Handmaid's Tale – Susan Dalgety

Piers Morgan is an unlikely poster boy for that most fundamental of human rights – freedom of speech.

Supporters of sexual health body Planned Parenthood dress as characters from The Handmaid's Tale as they protest outside the US Senate (Picture: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of sexual health body Planned Parenthood dress as characters from The Handmaid's Tale as they protest outside the US Senate (Picture: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

The ex-Good Morning Britain host was cleared earlier this week by media regulator Ofcom after a record 58,000 complaints about his less-than-flattering comments about the Duchess of Sussex.

The morning after her and Prince Harry’s interview with Oprah Winfrey was aired, Morgan dismissed the Duchess’s claims of cruelty by the Royal Family, saying, among other unflattering things, that he didn’t believe “a word she said”.

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Uproar followed as mental health campaigners and viewers rushed to complain about Morgan’s words. The Duchess of Sussex also made a formal complaint, and within hours Morgan had lost his job.

In a carefully worded, finely balanced response published on Wednesday, Ofcom argued that Piers Morgan was “entitled to say he disbelieved the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s allegations”. It went on, “the restriction of such views would, in our view, be an unwarranted and chilling restriction on freedom of expression both of the broadcaster and the audience”.

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Piers Morgan was understandably jubilant, describing the ruling as “a resounding victory for free speech”. And he’s right. Regardless of what you think about his combative style, Morgan is entitled to express his opinion.

As the campaign group Index on Censorship states on its website, the right to free expression is “vital to humanity and the foundation of a free society… essential for other rights like freedom of conscience. Without free expression, ideas cannot be tested. Without free expression, individuals cannot make informed decisions.”

But while Morgan celebrated his victory for human rights, elsewhere across the world people were finding theirs under attack. In a not unexpected move, a senior Taliban representative told the BBC that there “may not be” any women in Afghanistan’s new cabinet or senior government jobs, but he conceded that women will be allowed to work in more junior roles. Before US and UK troops pulled out last month, nearly half of all government employees were female.

The Taliban’s grudging concession to equality could be considered as progress since they were last in power two decades ago. In 1996, the Taliban regime decreed that all women should be banned from employment of any kind, girls could not attend school, and women were not allowed to appear on TV or radio. Only time will tell if the bearded misogynists have mellowed in their approach to women’s human rights. I, for one, am not hopeful.

One of the most worrying developments in global human rights happened earlier this week, when the world’s second biggest economy, China, began a crackdown on celebrity culture in its government’s latest drive towards “common prosperity”. The Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection says it is time to “turn the page on popular celebrities” because they bring “chaos to the internet” and have an “ill impact on web users, especially the young people”.

At least one hugely popular actress, Zhao Wei, is thought to have fled to France after her work began to disappear from major video sites. Internet regulators have been ordered to take down all charts which feature individual performers, and “effeminate” men have been banned from appearing on TV and streaming platforms.

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It seems that the Chinese government thinks that pop stars in make-up are a bad influence on the country’s youth. And in a move that would shock British children to the very core of their being, a government edict just issued says that Chinese youngsters can only play video games three hours a week, and never on a school day. At least one giant online games company has announced it will use facial recognition technology to enforce the rule.

In what some Chinese intellectuals fear is a second cultural revolution, President Xi seems determined to reverse the progress his country has made in recent years, all in the name of socialism and equality.

But perhaps the most harrowing breach of human rights came this week, not from fundamentalist warlords or totalitarian communists, but from the land of the free.

Americans may have a constitutional right to free speech under their first amendment, but in Texas, women and girls no longer have any rights over their own body.

The state government has just banned abortion once a heartbeat has been detected, which is usually around six weeks after conception. Most women and girls will not even be aware they are pregnant at this stage.

There will be no concessions for victims of rape or incest. In the Lone Star state, a 13-year-old girl, raped by her father, will be forced to give birth to her own sister.

And in a move that would be considered over the top in Gilead, the fictional location of The Handmaid’s Tale, Texan residents can now sue anyone – doctor, nurse, Uber driver – who helps a woman get a termination after the six-week deadline.

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As Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote after the Supreme Court refused to block the controversial law, Texas has “deputised the state's citizens as bounty hunters, offering them cash prizes for civilly prosecuting their neighbours' medical procedures”. Welcome to the new Wild West, where pregnant women, not cattle, are to be rounded up.

Social progress is a fragile thing. The human rights we take for granted in this country – freedom of speech, sex equality, uncensored artistic expression, the right to choose – are not guaranteed.

As Afghanistan, China and now America has shown us this week, our human rights have to be constantly nurtured as the precious things that they are, even if it means defending Piers Morgan.

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