Pray For An End To Abortion: Photo: Rex C. Curry;AP

United Kingdom: praying outside abortion clinic (even in silence) is forbidden by law

The law that creates buffer zones around «sensitive» services has been definitively approved by the House of Commons. Wide discretionary powers to the police, consensual conversations and silent prayers made criminal acts. Some parliamentarians protest: an attack on freedom and democracy.

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Patricia Gooding-Williams

(ZENIT News – New Daily Compass / London, 03.09.2023).- UK citizens went to their beds last Tuesday March 7, a significant step closer to living in a police state with the prospect of a new bizarre threat of being convicted of “thought crimes” hanging over their heads. It’s already clear the controversial and arguably undemocratic Public Order Bill (POB), voted into law by a clear majority in the House of Commons two days ago, will bite hard into democratic freedoms.

Perhaps in theory, the POB which gives the police ‘additional powers to crackdown on behaviour which is causing ‘annoyance, harassment, alarm or distress’ might seem innocuous. But, in reality, the Bill intended to tighten laws against the violent protests by such groups as Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion, which have besieged the UK recently, has been heavily exploited by abortionist politicians to also crack down on the pro-life movement and censor fundamental freedoms and alternative choices to abortion.

The most controversial and hotly debated part of the POB is clause 10 which introduces “buffer zones” of a circumference of 150m around every abortion facility in England and Wales. The draconian legislation makes it a criminal offence, punishable by an initial fixed penalty fine of £100, possibly rising to £1,000 if the accused is taken to court and a criminal record, for exercising any form of influence outside an abortion facility. Actions that could be perceived as “influencing” include engaging in abortion related conversations even if they are consensual or silent prayer. Ironically, the powers conceded by the POB are so influential, they not only stifle the modest pro-life support that still exists in the UK, they also torpedo the democratic foundations that once made Britain Great: religious freedom, freedom of movement, freedom of speech and freedom to protest peacefully.

Warnings that the Bill could prove to be a Pyrrhic victory the government lives to regret were voiced clearly during readings in the House of Lords. Members argued it was an attack on fundamental citizens rights and that opposing such censorship didn’t require holding pro-life views. One of the speakers, Baroness Claire Fox who believes women should have “maximum access to the right to abortion” also stated “A woman who may not be sure and is still thinking about it, even as she goes in for a termination, might be given a leaflet and then says in her own defence, ‘I’ve changed my mind, there may be an option of getting some practical support for pregnancy’. Whatever the reason is, that is their choice. The point is that I’m pro-choice. I do not want us to undermine women’s agency in our enthusiasm to support laws presented as protecting women”. The Lords sent the Bill back to the Commons with numerous amendments recommended for debate.

In the final debate in the Commons, Sir John Hayes, Member for South Holland and The Deepings, emphasised, “This is about freedom – it’s not about the purpose of freedom or the location of it. It’s about the ability to think, and speak, and pray freely,” he explained.

Whereas, Conservative MP Andrew Lewer (Northampton South) attempted to alleviate the Bill’s damage by proposing an amendment to protect silent prayer and consensual conversation.  “Police shouldn’t be asking ‘What are you thinking about?!’”, said Lewer.  Speaking in Parliament he continued, “Censorship of this sort is a notoriously slippery slope. It might not be your thoughts that are criminalised today, but I think we should all be careful not to open the door to that tomorrow about some other opinions that people may hold about something else,”. The point was missed. His amendment was squashed after a free vote of 116 to 299.

Evidently, the majority of the current Members of Parliament in the UK, democratically voted by the electorate for their stands on certain issues, do not believe that the British public should be afforded the same luxury. For the first time in modern British history, precisely to avoid the public engaging in consensual conversations on the sensitive subject of abortion, the government has awarded the police wide sweeping legal powers to criminally convict people for their thoughts and the content of their speech in these censorship zones which in any other area of the country would be completely legitimate.

Of course, it is easy to support free speech when everyone agrees with what’s being said. But, it’s when the conversation is difficult and divisive that a democracy is put to the test. In this case one wonders if it should be the role of a democratic government to legislate to prevent conversations taking place, including where there is disagreement, in a free society. Apparently the POB is the government’s answer. It has taken on itself to decide for women what information they are allowed to hear, where and from whom, while rolling back more than a thousand years of legislation which protects individual rights to fundamental freedoms.

The vote came just a day after Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, a Catholic and Co-Director of March for Life UK, was arrested for the second time for praying silently near the BPAS Robert Clinic in Kings Norton, Birmingham under a Public Spaces Protection Order. The arrest, attended by six police officers, comes three weeks after Ms Vaughan-Spruce was acquitted by Birmingham Magistrates’ Court together with Fr Sean Gough, a Wolverhampton priest who had also prayed silently outside the same clinic and held up a sign reading “Praying for the Freedom of Speech”. From now on, British citizens will have to pay a «tax» if they want to pray silently in these “buffer zones”.

Paradoxically, on International Women’s Day this year in the UK, women are less free than ever before. Often the decision to have an abortion is the surface manifestation of a much deeper problem. A 2022 poll commissioned by the BBC showed that 15 per cent of women aged 18 – 44 said they had felt under pressure to abort against their will. 2021 had the highest abortion figures ever and yet rather than offering women more opportunities to look at alternatives the government has adopted measures to clamp down on those who help women in some of the most challenging situations.

The international debate opened by the POB on the extent to which a democratic State can legitimately restrict free speech, freedom of thought and religious freedom has provoked a number of alarmed reactions. Five UN  Special Rapporteurs have raised grave concerns that the Bill curtails human rights including the Commissioner for Human Rights of the council of Europe. Amnesty International made comparisons to repressive policies in Russia and Belarus whereas a group of Hongkongers likened the measures to those used against the democracy protests in Hong Kong. Human Rights Watch warned that the UK was in danger of being added to its global list of human rights abusers.

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