By Michael Haynes
Politicians in England have voted to proceed with criminalizing pro-life witnesses outside abortuaries, by approving so-called “buffer zones” around abortion facilities across the country.
Clause 11 of the Public Order Bill was approved in a vote of 297-110 in the U.K.’s House of Commons, Tuesday night. The bill will now pass to the upper house, the House of Lords, where it will be assessed by peers.
Under the terms of the clause, proposed by Labour MP Stella Creasy, people would be banned from being in a buffer zone – within 150 meters of an abortion facility – and banned from “intefer[ing] with any person’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services in that buffer zone.”
The clause states that one who “interferes” is a person who:
- seeks to influence,
- persistently, continuously, or repeatedly occupies,
- impedes or threatens,
- intimidates or harasses,
- advises or persuades, attempts to advise or persuade, or otherwise expresses opinion,
- informs or attempts to inform about abortion services by any means, including, without limitation, graphic, physical, verbal or written means, or
- sketches, photographs, records, stores, broadcasts, or transmits images, audio, likenesses or personal data of any person without express consent.
This would directly prevent peaceful pro-life witness performed by individuals who pray outside abortion mills, or provide counsel to people seeking an abortion.
Penalties for such an “offence” can entail a prison sentence of up to 2 years and a level five fine, which can be an “unlimited” amount.
The measures would affect England, but similarly such provisions are already under discussion in Scotland.
Pro-lifers were defended by the (then current) Home Secretary Suella Braverman as well as the All-Party Parliamentary Group Pro-Life Chair Carla Lockhart (DUP), and the Co-chair Fiona Bruce, who also serves as the U.K.’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief. Certain Catholic MPs also opposed the measures, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Sir Edward Leigh.
Speaking in Parliament, Lockhart called the measures “unnecessary and disproportionate,” saying that there is “no evidence of the scale of harassment” from pro-lifers which pro-abortion MPs referenced.
Similarly, Fiona Bruce excoriated the clause for its “threats—to freedom of thought, conscience, speech, belief and assembly. Let us be clear: new clause 11 flies directly in the face of those freedoms.”
“It has far wider implications than on abortion alone; it potentially criminalises even those who simply stand peaceably near abortion clinics, and who do so mainly on the basis of their faith-based beliefs,” she added.
Bruce argued that the clause was in violation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which defends the public and private manifestation of one’s “right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.”
The measure “is specifically targeted at those with faith-based views,” she stated.
Contrary to the mainstream narrative, Bruce argued that “there have been relatively few, if any” reports of “harassment or intimidation” outside abortion facilities.
In a press release, the UK’s Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), called the outcome “a black day for democracy and basic civil liberties.”
“Ordinary, peaceful citizens now risk substantial jail time for the simple act of praying in public, and offering help to women in need,” warned the pro-life group. “Parliament has literally just criminalised compassion.”
As noted also in interventions from the pro-life MPs, SPUC warned that implementing buffer zones across the country would remove “a real lifeline for women.”
“Many women feel like they have no choice but to have an abortion, and pro-life vigils give them options. Now their choices have been taken away.”
40 Days for Life UK, which holds a number of prayerful vigils outside abortion facilities, highlighted the “unbelievable irony” of the clause. CEO Shawn Carney stated that “previous generations from England and America who faithfully fought and died defending freedom in Europe would be outraged to see what has become of the UK.”
He noted that the pro-life group is “pursuing every legal option to stop and overturn this outrageous assault on freedom and choice – including immediate litigation. It is shameful that cowardice politicians allow their bigotry to target their own law-abiding, peaceful citizens who have a pro-life opinion as part of decent public discourse,” Carney added.
Meanwhile Right To Life UK spokesperson Catherine Robinson referenced the “hundreds of women helped outside abortion clinics by pro-life volunteers who have provided them with practical support, which made it clear to them that they had another option other than going through with the abortion.”
The new clause “means that the vital practical support provided by volunteers outside abortion clinics will be removed for women and many more lives will likely be lost to abortion.”
The bill will now pass to the House of Lords, through which it must pass if it is to become law.
It follows on the heels of a number of attempts by Rupa Huq MP, who sought to implement such criminalization of pro-lifers around abortion facilities. Those attempts failed, but Creasy’s amendment now appears more likely to succeed.