Censorship zones would silence conversation, and prevent women from receiving advice or offers of help near abortion facilities.

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce


When pro-life charity volunteer Isabel prayed in a censorship zone outside an abortion facility in Birmingham – in the privacy of her own mind – police approached her. She was searched, arrested, interrogated and charged on four counts for her silent prayer – a “thoughtcrime”. Nobody should be criminalised for their thoughts in the UK. Join us in supporting Isabel’s rights to freedom of thought, conscience, belief, religion and more.

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Fundamental Freedoms

Everybody in the UK is entitled to basic, fundamental freedoms as they live out their lives.  

ADF UK supports and protects the fundamental freedoms and inherent dignity of every individual. 

But the government’s plan to introduce censorship zones around abortion facilities result in a loss for everyone’s freedoms and human rights.

Freedom of Speech

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In a democracy, everybody should be allowed to discuss their opinions openly in the public square – especially about issues of major social significance.  

But censorship zone legislation bans pro-life opinions, not on the basis of how they are expressed, but on the basis of what is being said.  

The policy amounts to viewpoint discrimination, and opens the door to censorship of other minority opinions – for example, gender critical thought.

Freedom to hear Information

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Women facing crisis pregnancies shouldn’t be blocked from hearing information about support on offer should they wish to avoid abortion. According to BBC polling, 1 in 5 women who have abortions do so against their will. This should never be seen as their “only choice”. 

But censorship zones ban pro-life volunteers from offering alternative choices, right where it might be needed most.  

Women should be trusted to make their own judgements about whether they want to accept an offer or not. It’s not for the government to interfere with matters of hearts and minds.

Freedom of Religion

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According to international law, everybody has the right to freely express their faith both in private and in public. But censorship zones that have been instituted by local authorities go as far as to ban even silent, internal prayer within the vicinity of an abortion facility. Already, Christians have faced arrest for praying silently here – find out more about Rosa and Livia.

A silent prayer is simply a thought lifted to God. Making such an activity illegal would introduce a “thoughtcrime” into UK legislation for the first time.

Freedom of thought

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The ability to think what you want to think is one of the most intrinsic freedoms of the human person. But Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill – which would role out censorship zones across England & Wales – criminalises pro-life people even from “occupying space” outside of abortion facilities. Mere peaceful presence would be criminalised simply by virtue of the opinions one holds in their mind, regardless of if they are expressing those opinions in verbal or written form.

Freedom of Protest

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Protest has been subject to much scrutiny of late, with radical climate activists blocking roads and damaging artwork. Those who pray in front of abortion facilities have been swept up in the reactionary bans as their activities are being classed as “protest” too. 

Protest is a qualified right, meaning that it can be tempered and limited for the sake of public order. But these balances on the right to protest should be proportionate and specific; not vague and sweeping. Legislation that bans mere “expression of opinion” or “advise” can never be considered a necessary or proportionate response.

The Right to Life

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Everybody has the right to life – no matter whether they are old or young, whether they contribute to society or not. But every year in the England & Wales, we lose 200,000 lives to abortion – a procedure which is also harmful to women. Even scholars who support abortion have found that it increases a woman’s likelihood of experiencing depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and other mental health difficulties. Every year, pro-life charities work to support both lives in a pregnancy – mother and child. The services they offer at the gates of abortion facilities have positively impacted many. Read more about it at www.behereforeme.org.

Don’t Criminalise Help

According to a 2018 government review, the most common activities performed by pro-life volunteers outside of abortion facilities are either: 

  • silent or quiet prayer, or  
  • offering information about services available to women who would like to avoid abortion if they had another “realistic” alternative. 

Prayer and offers of charitable help should never be criminal activities. In a democracy, the government shouldn’t encroach upon private conversations. Neither should they legislate on silent thought by banning prayer. 

But new legislation would make these activities punishable by up to 2 years in prison.

Censorship zones set a dangerous precedent for free speech

Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill explicitly bans the “expression of belief” for people with pro-life views in certain public spaces. Lord Beith called this legislation:

Not everyone agrees with pro-life opinions.

But free speech must extend to minority opinions, or there is no free speech at all.

Introducing viewpoint-based censorship around abortion facilities is bound to set a precedent for other institutions to ask for their own buffer zones.

For example, what about gender critical rallies outside a town hall which could be deemed as upsetting to passers-by?

Or what’s to stop authorities from censoring more public spaces from pro-life opinions than only 150m away from an abortion facilities? Already, officers have told praying pro-life women to leave from streets where there is no censorship zone enforced at all.

Read Livia’s story.

The most profound restriction on free speech I have ever seen in UK legislation.

Lord BeithHouse of Lords

“Don’t ban help!” Alina shares her experience of receiving support at the gates on an abortion facility:


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“This is the greatest incursion of civil liberties,” Lord Farmer and Lois McLatchie discuss buffer zones with Andrew Doyle


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Pro-abortion advocate Baroness Claire Fox explains why free speech should extend to those even with whom we disagree:


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Do censorship zones protect women from harassment?

ADF UK stand firmly against harassment against women in any circumstances. Censorship zones (so-called “buffer zones”) aren’t the solution to protecting women from harassment.   Harrassment is illegal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland under – to name just one example – the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (and the adjacent Protection From Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order of the same year).  In Scotland, if someone is engaging in harassment, they can be subject to a non-harassment order. If that order is breached, it’s an offence with up to 2 years jail time.   Censorship zones, then, wouldn’t newly ban harassment. They would, however, newly ban other forms of behavior which are perfectly legal, protected in human rights law under freedom of speech, thought, and assembly, and indeed can be a vital lifeline to women.

What really happens outside abortion facilities?

In 2018, the UK Home Office conducted a review into the situation outside abortion facilities across the country. Taking into account evidence gathered about instances of harassment, the Home Secretary at the times said this:  “…what is clear from the evidence we gathered is that these activities are not the norm, and predominantly, anti-abortion activities are more passive in nature. The main activities reported to us that take place during protests include praying, displaying banners and handing out leaflets.”  (Since 2018, there has been no evidence of a substantive escalation of any violence, abuse or harassment outside of abortion facilities).  The Home Secretary thus concluded that:  “Introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response, considering the experiences of the majority of hospitals and clinics, and considering that the majority of activities are more passive in nature.”  This conclusion indeed corresponds with the testimonies of women who say they felt helped, not harassed, by volunteers nearby abortion facilities.  Alina Dulgheriu is one such woman who has made her story public. When she found herself in a crisis pregnancy, she was alone, abandoned and jobless. Like almost 1 in 5 women who have abortions, she felt pressured into the decision. She thought she had no choice but to abort her child. Fortunately, Alina received a leaflet about help available, right at her point of need. She chose to accept the offer, and flourishes as a mother today. Find her story, as well as others, at www.behereforme.org.

Couldn’t silent prayer make women feel uncomfortable? Wouldn’t it be better to pray privately in a Church?

Silent prayer is possibly the most private action which one could manifest in public – an expression of thought.  In a free and fair democracy, everyone sometimes feels discomfort when confronted with a different thought or idea. Part of upholding an equal society is allowing for a diversity of opinion in the public square. Although someone might find the idea of public prayer outside of an abortion facility disagreeable, this doesn’t mean that it’s right to arrest and restrict the rights and freedoms of others. 

What do the national bills for censorship zones ban?

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, proposed national buffer zones legislation broadens criminal liability to any “influencing activity”. The scope of this term is so vague and unclear that it betrays the basic rules of good law.   Indeed, the scope is so broad that it would inevitably lead to numerous unjust arrests and needless interferences with the fundamental rights of people to freely think and speak on the public street.   In a recent submission to the Supreme Court, the Lord Advocate for Scotland made clear her belief that silent prayer should be treated the same as violent or threatening behaviour, alleging that silent prayer could be ‘psychologically damaging’. 

Didn’t West Midlands Police clarify that Isabel wasn’t arrested for praying?

West Midlands Police’s tweet was misleading to the extent that it purports to be a clarification. It a) omits the terms of the PSPO and b) provides incomplete details of the charge.   

The tweet also suggested that Isabel was arrested ‘to protect women from harassment’ when seeking an abortion. But they appear to have missed a crucial fact: the abortion clinic was closed when Isabel prayed. No woman would have been seeking an abortion at that time.

And even if the abortion centre was open, standing still and unassuming in a public space is an impermissibly low bar for criminal liability. Parliament did not introduce PSPOs to reduce the threshold of criminal harassment to include peaceful and harmless conduct. 

What was the original purpose of PSPOs?

PSPOs were designed to grant local authorities the power to target particular anti-social activities such as dog fouling, control of fires & barbecues etc. Parliament did not intend such orders to be used as unaccountable tools to restrict fundamental rights and freedoms. 

Unlike Court Orders, injunctions or other targeted measures, PSPOs are not targeted at any specific individual and are easier for councils to implement with more limited accountability and scrutiny.  

Is loitering now a crime?

Standing in a public space is not a criminal offence in the UK, not even under the PSPO. Both Isabel and Adam were not standing on private land, so there could be no allegation of trespass. 

Likewise, to be arrested for harassment under public order legislation, it would need to be shown that they were threatening or abusive – which was evidently not the case.  

The only way an accusation of anti-social behaviour or a public order offence is if prayer and offers of charitable help are now considered to be intrinsically disruptive, harassing, and intimidating when done in public spaces near abortion facilities? If so, that would be at odds with our hard-fought legal traditions of protecting freedom of speech and belief.  

Are so-called offers of charitable help not just anti-choice covers for harassment and intimidation?

For those who remain unconvinced that pro-life volunteers outside abortion facilities help women, please see the accounts of these women.

Pro-choice advocates should see the glaring inconsistency in arguing for a woman’s right to choose abortion while simultaneously denying their right to choose to engage in offers to discuss charitable alternatives to abortion.

A woman’s freedom to choose to keep her child does not suddenly disappear as she approaches the public spaces around an abortion centre.  

The idea that a decision has already been made ignores the fact that women are often unsure, coerced, confused or otherwise pressured toward abortion. 

Importantly, the idea that a woman has already made her decision when approaching the abortion centre cannot be reconciled with the fact that abortion centres are themselves meant to provide counselling support, including support for those wishing to keep their child.  

Such support would be unnecessary if it is assumed that the visiting woman has already made an unchangeable decision. 

Is standing wherever you want, whenever you want, is a paramount right?

No. The paramount rights in law, in this case, are freedom of thought and religion. Freedom of thought is an absolute right, which means the state cannot interfere with it under any circumstances.  

Freedom of religion can only be interfered with by the state when strictly necessary and proportionate to do so. Given that Isabel and Adam both stood and prayed silently in a public space, it is hard to see how an arrest, prosecution or penalty fine could ever be justified. 

Is thoughtcrime really a reality?

The question of intentions is a good one that ought to be more common in debates concerning criminal law. Increasingly, we are seeing criminal laws apply without reference to the accused’s intentions, with the feelings of the accuser treated as almost sacrosanct, and officers unthinkingly arresting individuals in public spaces based on reports that some bystanders are offended instead of considering the fundamental rights at play.  

In a democratic society, being offended by others is a given. It is a significantly less costly price to pay than ceding fundamental rights to the state. We know from history that once fundamental rights are ceded, the state will very rarely, if ever, willingly give them back.  

The law should be able to differentiate between silent unassuming prayer and charitable offers of help and criminal harassment and intimidation. PSPOs conflate all of these, bringing the threshold of criminality to an impermissibly low level. The government should look at the PSPO legislative regime and either scrap it in its entirety or expressly prohibit any interference with the peaceful exercise of fundamental rights.   

The reference to intimidation in Isabel’s charge is particularly alarming. At all material times, Isabel prayed silently while the abortion facility was closed. The wording of the charge appears to accuse her of intimidating by silent prayer, which is wholly new territory. 

Couldn’t Adam and Isabel have just prayed at home?

This question misses the point and displays the basic religious illiteracy that has been all too common from British police officers in recent years ranging from the routine arrest of street preachers to denying the late David Ames MP access to priests.   

Of course, Isabel or Adam could have prayed at home. But the more pertinent question is whether or not the state can legitimately restrict their ability to pray silently about abortion in a public space.  

A climate protester standing next to Isabel or Adam would not have been arrested. Assuming Isabel kneeled in prayer to God and was next to a campaigner doing the same for BLM, only Isabel would have been arrested. Isabel was arrested for the nature of her thoughts, who she was thinking towards (God) and where she was thinking them. 

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