Ask your MP to
PROTECT FREE SPEECH
I write with serious concern about Clause 9 of the “Public Order Bill”, currently under debate in Parliament.
This Clause would criminalise anyone who “advises”, “informs”, “persuades” or even “expresses opinion” near an abortion facility in the UK.
No woman should face harassment, outside an abortion facility or otherwise. I am glad that we have legislation that already empowers police to stop and prosecute those who engage in harassment.
However, it is clear that attempts to ban mere “informing” or “expressing an opinion”, inter alia, represent a watershed moment in UK legislative history. This legislation would go far beyond ending harassment. It would forbid people with pro-life views from praying, or offering charitable help to women who would like an alternative to abortion, in a public space.
I was pleased to see several amendments brought forward by the House of Lords to bring this clause closer into compliance with convention rights.
I am writing to ask you to consider two particular amendment proposals of note.
Lord Michael Farmer suggests that the government take a review of the current state of affairs around abortion facilities to ensure any further clamp down on pro-life activity is necessary and proportionate. The last government review of the situation outside of abortion facilities was in 2018. It found that buffer zones would be “disproportionate” and that the “main” activities of pro-life groups were simply praying, or offering charitable help. If new changes are made to the law now, they should be evidence-based, and not as a reaction to perceived “culture war” issues. Why bring in this far-reaching censorship now?
Baroness Clare Fox, a well-known supporter of abortion, also recognises the damage that Clause 9 would inflict on our democratic freedoms. She suggests altering Clause 9 to only prohibit “harassment and intimidation”, rather than reasonable conversation, advising, informing, praying and other forms of expression.
I trust that these helpful suggestions will be given due consideration by the parliament, particularly in light of the recent admission that the current draft cannot be said to be “compliant with convention rights.” Please also consider the slippery slope that bringing in such viewpoint discrimination against pro life “expressions of opinion” could mean for other minority views in our country down the road.
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.
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.
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.
The scope of Clause 9 goes as far as prohibiting “advising”, “persuading”, “influencing” and even “the expression of opinion” outside of abortion facilities. This reduces the threshold of criminality to such vaguely low standards that it contravenes the rule of law and, in particular, the principle of certainty. Could a parent, or social worker, be criminalized for “advising” a confused teen outside a clinic? Does mere peaceful presence amount to intimidation?
Where PSPOs have been instituted locally around abortion facilities, at least five councils have included “prayer” – with Ealing even affirming that they include a ban on “silent prayer” during legal proceedings. Given the nature of silent prayer, this institutes a genuine “thoughtcrime” – the first of its kind in the UK. Though Clause 9 does not specifically mention silent prayer, it is clear that proponents intend for it to be included. The Scottish government, for one, made clear at the Supreme Court hearing in July that they would include prayer within the scope of “influencing” in their legislation – the Lord Advocate claimed that silent prayer could cause “psychological damage”.
Of course, once the principle of banning protest/speech/potentially thought is affirmed, there is no logical stopping point that this would be “just for pro-lifers” in an exclusive circumstance. It is bound to set a precedent for other institutions to ask for their own buffer zones. What could this mean for embassies? Or gender critical rallies outside a town hall which could be deemed as upsetting or “psychologically damaging” to passers-by?
The amendment, bans, for the first time the mere “occupying” of a public space. That means people could be criminalised simply by virtue of what they believe, who they are associated with, and being present in an area where others disagree with them – even if there is absolutely no threatening, harassing, or intimidating behaviour. This unfortunately makes the law more equal for some than it is for others subject to what they believe and creates a dangerous precedent.