Communications Officer Rebekah Moffett comments on a recent amendment to the Public Order Bill that would put ‘censorship zones’ around all abortion clinics and ban even offering a pro-life opinion.
At the end of last month, MPs in the House of Commons voted to impose ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics. Now, the House of Lords has debated the amendment to the Public Order Bill.
Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill isn’t short, but it’s worth quoting it in its entirety to show just how over-the-top it is. It reads:
9 Offence of interference with access to or provision of abortion services
- A person who is within a buffer zone and who interferes with any person’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services in that buffer zone is guilty of an offence.
- A “buffer zone” means an area which is within a boundary which is 150 metres from any part of an abortion clinic or any access point to any building or site that contains an abortion clinic and is—
- on or adjacent to a public highway or public right of way,
- in an open space to which the public has access,
- within the curtilage of an abortion clinic, or
- in any location that is visible from a public highway, public right of way, open space to which the public have access, or the curtilage of an abortion clinic.
- For the purposes of subsection (1), “interferes with” means—
- 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.
- A person guilty of an offence under subsection (1) is liable—
- in the first instance—
- on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months,
- to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or
- to both; and
- on further instances—
- on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years, or to a fine, or to both, or
- on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to a fine, or to both.
- Nothing in this section applies to—
- anything done in the course of providing, or facilitating the provision of, abortion services in an abortion clinic,
- anything done in the course of providing medical care within a GP practice, hospital or other healthcare facility,
- the operation of a camera if its coverage of persons accessing or attempting to access an abortion clinic is incidental and the camera or footage is not used for any of the purposes listed in subsection (3), and
- a police officer acting properly in the course of their duties.
To be clear, this could criminalise even a friend who goes to an abortion clinic and asks if the woman is sure about going through with it within a 150m radius of the clinic – and for any repeat offenders, they could face up to 2 years in jail as well as a fine.
The bill has now had its second reading in the House of Lords, but will need to go through the committee stage before it becomes law. However, the bill is a government bill, and is therefore likely to be passed in the House of Lords at its third reading.
Government bill, Labour amendment
The Public Order Bill was introduced to the House of Commons earlier this year, and is generally an attempt to clarify and make provision about the exercise of police functions relating to ‘public order’, such as powers to stop and search, police powers at protests, and the like. It was never originally meant to deal with matters of free speech and freedom of religion outside of abortion clinics.
Clause 9, which lays out the provision of censorship zones around abortion clinics, was added to the bill by the Labour Party, the opposition party.
Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle, a Green Party peer, spoke out in favour of the amendment, also summing up the Labour Party position:
“It is clear that we need blanket buffer zones around all abortion clinics. No other approach is workable and existing legislation does not allow what is needed. We are talking about enabling women to access, and healthcare professionals to provide, a lawful and confidential health service without harassment or intimidation.”
However, several Conservative peers spoke out against the ideology behind the new clause, expressing their surprise that so many Conservative MPs in the Commons supported it.
Lord Farmer, a Conservative peer, commented in the House of Lords:
“My main concern with the Bill is the ideologically inspired Clause 9, which has just been spoken about, introduced as an opposition party amendment in the other place. Of those who voted, all Labour MPs registered their support for the right to protest disruptively by voting against the Bill at Second Reading, and all Toggle showing location of Column 185 voted for pro-life protesters’ rights to be withdrawn. This is not just hypocritical; it exposes the cultural authoritarianism behind those who claim to want freedom to protest.
“Clause 9 is now the most restrictive part of the whole Bill, allegedly to protect women from harassment. Yet it goes significantly beyond banning ‘harassment’ or even preventing ‘serious disruption’, as is the stated intention of the Bill. It bans ‘protest’ for those who hold certain beliefs, and their right to ‘inform’, ‘persuade’, ‘advise’ or even express opinion on the public street.
“… However, for some, the right to protest depends entirely on what one’s convictions are. Pro-life convictions are deemed so abhorrent as to require a blanket ban and withdrawal of rights within certain spaces.
“Furthermore, the Bill reduces the threshold of criminality to standards lower than ever before and, as currently drafted, would likely catch a parent, teacher or social worker giving, at the request of a young or vulnerable person, rounded advice to help them make one of life’s most difficult decisions.”
Lord Frost also expressed his surprise:
“Clause 9, on abortion clinics, was added in the other place and was not part of the Government’s original thinking. I am a little surprised that the Government allowed it to be subject to a free vote, because the issue is clearly not about abortion services themselves but about the right to protest and persuade. Here, the distinction I made between persuasion and intimidation needs to be maintained, and I am not sure that Clause 9 does that. I have no difficulty with subsections (3)(c) or (3)(d), but it cannot be right for this Parliament to make it illegal if someone, for example, ‘seeks to influence’, ‘persistently … occupies’ or ‘informs or attempts to inform’.”
‘Breach of human rights’
Lord Sharpe of Epsom, who previously made a statement about how the new clause could potentially breach human rights, alluded to the idea that the clause would need amending before it became law saying, “we cannot accept Clause 9 in its current form.”
Lord Beith added his own concerns about the clause breaching human rights, especially free speech:
“I cannot support a clause which criminalises a person who ‘seeks to influence’, provides information or ‘expresses opinion.’ This is the most profound restriction on free speech I have ever seen in any UK legislation.”
Baroness Fox of Buckley, who describes herself as ‘pro-choice’, expressed her concerns that the bill as it stands would outlaw ‘thought crime’ and ‘betrays’ religious freedoms:
“As a long-standing pro-choice campaigner, I believe that it is totally vital that women are able to safely access reproductive healthcare services. If they are being obstructed or harassed, we have public order laws to deal with this, and we should deal with them harshly. However, as we have already heard, Clause 9 criminalises and bans seeking to influence, advising or persuading, attempting to advise or persuade, or otherwise expressing an opinion.
“… [Clause 9] sets a precedent that will inevitably lead to attempts to prevent speech, expression, information sharing and assembly in relation to other controversial and unpopular causes. It is also worth noting that at least five councils with PSPO buffer zones around abortion clinics have banned silent prayers. This institutes a law of genuine thought crime and betrays any commitment to religious freedom, and we should totally oppose it.”
Other peers conceded that the clause could be necessary, but in its current form was not a proportionate response to what actually goes on outside abortion clinics.
Lord Hope of Craighead commented:
“Of course, those who object to the process have the right to enjoy their rights under Articles 10 and 11 too, and the right to freedom of expression, but has the balance moved too far in their case, too? Clause 9, based on the concept of buffer zones within which such conduct is prohibited, could offer a solution, but we need to consider carefully whether the detail in Clause 9 is a proportionate response to the undoubted and serious problems that it seeks to address.”
He concluded that the clause was “in need of amendment.”
The Bishop of St Albans also added his concerns about the clause being disproportionate:
“The term “interferes with” is so broadly defined that it includes seeking to influence, merely expressing an opinion, or attempting ‘to inform about abortion services’.
“I cannot believe that this is proportionate given the existing powers possessed by the police and local authorities, and I am sure that we on this Bench will wish to look again at this clause.”
Women need to be allowed to be offered help
Lord McAvoy, a Labour peer, was in the minority within his own party, opposing the clause and highlighting how many women have been helped by those standing outside abortion clinics. He urged the House to drop the clause and recognise the need for those outside abortion clinics:
“My Lords, there seems to be a litany of problems with Clause 9, but I will pick up on just a few. …
“… I need to stress that I quite understand that proponents of Clause 9 are seeking to protect vulnerable women entering abortion clinics. It is absolutely the case that women experiencing crisis pregnancies can often be under a great deal of pressure and are therefore deserving of our support. However, the pressure can also cause many women to feel that they have only one option: to terminate the pregnancy. Volunteers outside abortion clinics recognise this fact and are simply trying to help women to find out what help is available. People like that should not be sentenced to prison for six months—that is what this clause does, according to my reading of it. Are those in support of this clause really in favour of criminalising people who seek to help women with housing, protection from domestic abuse, the provision of clothing or a variety of other financial and legal support?
“… We cannot start using blunt instruments such as this clause to criminalise innocent volunteers. If we make it illegal to hand out a leaflet with offers of housing or support, we embark on a slippery slope that could lead to bans on other leaflets with which we disagree. Who among us would condone such a policy being imposed on the Members of the other place during an election? Yet that outcome becomes a possibility if this clause becomes law. Let us strongly oppose Clause 9, and let the Government get the message here from what seems to be all sides of the House, so that they consider how they can protect the ability to offer valuable help to vulnerable women when they need it most.”
Pro-lifers face harassment – not the other way around
In reality, those attending abortion clinics for an abortion are very rarely the victims of harassment and intimidation by those standing outside abortion clinics. Most often, it is the other way around, with pro-life campaigners themselves facing harassment and intimidation from members of the public. There is even video evidence of the typical abuse that pro-life groups face – this video took place in October 2020, outside a Birmingham abortion clinic.
Baroness O’Loan also alluded to the fact that pro-life groups do not harass those entering abortion clinics:
“When ‘protests’ take place, they are typically quiet prayer groups which occasionally display signs or placards. However, participants do not cajole or harass women. There is no interference with access to or the provision of abortion services. Approximately 90% of all clinics and hospitals have not reported either activity as ever having occurred, according to the findings of the 2018 Home Office review. A blanket ban around abortion clinics would be disproportionate, a denial of the right to freedom of expression, it is unnecessary, and it could even be harmful.
“The reality is that many of those taking part in these vigils often provide help to vulnerable women. Historically, as a result of expressions of prayer and offers of help, women have been able to avail themselves of practical, emotional and other forms of support of which they may previously have been unaware or were unable to access. Some women, who may be uncertain but feel forced to terminate a pregnancy because of their fears that they cannot cope, and who might be reassured by what they might hear before they get into the clinic, will inevitably suffer if a disproportionate ban is enforced. Some of these women have never had the opportunity to receive impartial counsel and support as they consider their options.”
In fact, evidence suggests that the great majority of the public doesn’t even support the creation of these censorship zones. Baroness O’Loan continued:
“A June 2021 poll undertaken by Savanta ComRes shows that only 21% of the population support introducing buffer zones around abortion clinics nationwide. A majority support either having no restrictions on speaking about the issue of abortion outside abortion clinics or restrictions in line with current legislation.”
Pray for protection of free speech
Let’s pray that freedom of speech would be protected in this country, and that the right to offer to help to vulnerable women in crisis pregnancies would especially be protected and upheld.
Give thanks for those Lords that are recognising the help and support that pro-life groups offer, and the need for them even outside abortion clinics. Pray that more would understand the brutality of abortion, and the need to protect life.