Praying outside an abortion clinic could land you in jail for two years

9 June 2022

Labour MP Rupa Huq is making another attempt to introduce new legislation that would ban any sort of prayer, protest or support offered to people outside of abortion clinics across the country.

In an amendment to the Public Order Bill, the proposed text suggests that anyone found within these censorship zones – which constitute a 150m radius around abortion clinics – could face a fine or six months’ imprisonment, and if found for a second time, could even face up to two years in prison.

To be clear, these punishments are reserved for anyone who “interferes with any person’s decision to access, provide or facilitate the provision of abortion services in that buffer zone.”

However, ‘interferes with’ is further broken down, making it clear that it targets anyone who might be there to offer appropriate support and advice to women looking for help. The amendment lays out that ‘interferes with’ can be defined as:

“(a) seeks to influence; or
(b) persistently, continuously or repeatedly occupies; or
(c) Impedes or threatens; or
(d) intimidates or harasses; or
(e) advises or persuades, attempts to advise or persuade, or otherwise expresses opinion; or
(f) informs or attempts to inform about abortion services by any means, including, without limitation, graphic, physical, verbal or written means; or
(g) sketches, photographs, records, stores, broadcasts, or transmits images, audio, likeness or personal data or any person without express consent.”

The growing use of ‘buffer zones’

The effort to shut down the pro-life voice by any means is sadly not new. In fact, the proposed amendment is simply the re-tabling of the same amendment brought forward by Ms Huq in 2021, which ended up not being put to a vote after opposition from Parliament and the public.

However, an increasing number of local councils have gone out of their way to enact Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs), which essentially have the same legal effect as creating a so-called ‘buffer zone’.

Most famously, in October 2019, Christian Hacking became the first person to be arrested for publicly praying in front of an abortion clinic, in violation of the UK’s first ‘buffer zone’ in Ealing, West London. Since then, two more ‘buffer zones’ have been created in the UK, effectively silencing the pro-life voice outside abortion clinics.

More recently, Birmingham City Council has consulted on creating a new PSPO around another abortion clinic, arguing that it was in the ‘public interest’ to protect residents from allegedly ‘violent protestors’. Pro-life group 40 Days for Life, which regularly sets up peaceful prayer vigils outside abortion clinics (far enough away from the entrance so as not to cause disturbance), was accused by the council of sending ‘violent protestors’ to the Robert Clinic, Birmingham, who allegedly harass and interrogate the public. Yet the council failed to recognise that in reality, it is the pro-life volunteers who regularly face harassment from the public.

A targeted attack towards the pro-life movement?

Yet in reality, these zones are really ‘censorship zones’. The real purpose of them is shut down any form of pro-life action, prayer or support, outside of abortion clinics. In effect, this gives priority to a pro-abortion viewpoint over a pro-life viewpoint.

Even pro-abortion MP Kit Malthouse seemed to point out the hypocrisy of so-called ‘buffer zones’ during the second reading of the Public Order Bill in the House of Commons, commenting:

“I am honestly and genuinely perplexed by the argument about buffer zones … I understand the sensitivity in that particular situation, but why is it that we object to and are willing to restrict that particular form of protest, but not others?”

The pro-life presence outside abortion clinics in the UK is a peaceful one, with most groups setting up prayer vigils or silent demonstrations, with the occasional leaflet or booklet being offered to those who pass by.

Many women – and men – have been helped by these pro-lifers outside abortion clinics, being shown there are other options to abortion. For example, Danny and Carla were helped by 40 Days for Life outside an abortion clinic when they felt they had no other choice than to terminate Carla’s pregnancy. They are now proud parents to baby Betsy.

Similarly, the testimonies of those helped by abortion pill reversal suggest a growing number of women who regret choosing abortion, and point to a much-needed pro-life presence outside abortion clinics.

It makes sense for the pro-life movement to be present outside the very place it objects to; much as you might find animal rights’ protestors outside shops that sell fur or products tested on animals. The difference is, those with a pro-life point of view are effectively being told their views aren’t valid and must be shut down, even when they cause no disruption.

In turn, this essentially allows ideological abortion providers to hide all opposition to what they’re doing to where no one can see it. It lets them keep women, who may be being coerced or uncertain about their decision, on the abortion conveyor belt that always ends in the ‘choice’ to abort.

Breach of human rights

These censorship zones effectively breach freedom of religion and belief by banning a pro-life viewpoint from being expressed within a certain area. They are also a wildly disproportionate response to the activity that generally goes on outside abortion clinics.

Article 9 of the Human Rights Act in the UK protects freedom of thought, belief and religion, which Article 10 protects the right to freedom of expression. Similarly, Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights provides freedom of assembly, meaning that everyone, no matter the cause, has a right to protest, demonstrate or march in a public space – which includes outside abortion clinics.

The universal introduction of so-called ‘buffer zones’ would inhibit these freedoms and may well be ruled to breach human rights.

‘Buffer zones’ not supported by Parliament or public

On various occasions, both Parliament and the public have opposed the introduction of these areas of censorship around abortion clinics.

Back in 2018, then Home Secretary Sajid Javid rejected calls to impose ‘buffer zones’ around the country, calling them a disproportionate response to what actually takes place outside these clinics.

Similarly, a Savanta ComRes poll in 2020 found that only 21% of the population really support the introduction of nationwide ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics. This figure drops to 15% for 18-34 year olds, who tend to make up the majority of women who seek out abortions.

Write to your MP

The Public Order Bill is currently being discussed by the Commons General Committee – of which Rupa Huq MP is a member. This means the amendment is likely to get through to a third reading in the House of Commons.

Now is the time to act.

Please write to your MP, urging them not to support this amendment, and rather uphold the freedom to protest, pray and offer support to people outside abortion clinics.

You may want to make some of the points below in your email. We encourage you to write them in your own words.

Don’t introduce censorship zones around abortion clinics:

  • Proposed ‘buffer zones’ actually breach freedom of religion and belief;
  • ‘Buffer zones’ would represent a targeted attack on a particular group of people outside a particular place – which constitutes discrimination;
  • The help and support offered to those outside abortion clinics should not be conflated with harassment;
  • Those standing outside clinics are usually the ones who end up facing abuse – yet no protection is offered to them;
  • Former Home Secretary Sajid Javid believed these censorship zones were a disproportionate response to pro-life protests, prayers and support. A jail sentence goes further beyond that;
  • Many women have been helped from volunteers who pray and offer advice outside clinics (including Danny and Carla);
  • The proposals do not seem to support the opinions of the general public;
  • The government claims to support free speech. It is senseless to support an amendment that is a brazen attempt to shut down one side of an argument (if your MP is Conservative).
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