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LONDON (7th December 2022) – Mothers and free speech campaigners have spoken out as the UK Supreme Court has allowed the Northern Irish government to implement censorship zones around abortion facilities across the country.
The Court was asked to review the validity of Northern Ireland’s ban on “direct” and “indirect” pro-life “influence” within 100m of abortion facilities. The bill in question criminalises not only harassment, which is already illegal; but also quiet or silent prayer, or the offer of leaflets about charitable services available which provide alternative options to abortion, including through financial or practical support.
“We are of course disappointed to see today’s ruling from the Supreme Court, which fails to protect the basic freedoms to pray or to offer help to women who may want to know about practical support available to avoid abortion. Peaceful presence, mere conversation, quiet or silent prayer – these activities should never be criminalised in a democratic society like the UK,” said Jeremiah Igunnubole, Legal Counsel for ADF UK.
“The criminalisation of any kind of ‘influencing’ is vague, uncertain and reduces the threshold of criminality to an impermissibly low level. Northern Ireland’s broadly drafted law hands arbitrary power to police officers, with the inevitable consequence being the unjust arrest and prosecution of those expressing pro-life views, even though such views are protected under domestic and international human rights law,” he continued.
“Westminster’s attempt to ban such activities is much further reaching than Northern Ireland’s – banning “informing”, “advising”, “persuading”, or even “occupying space” or “expressing opinion”, with a penalty of up to two years in prison. This is clearly grossly disproportionate. Nobody should be censored for simply holding pro-life beliefs,” he added.
Women concerned about removal of charitable help
A 2018 government review into the work of pro-life volunteers outside of abortion facilities found that instances of harassment are rare, and police already have powers to prosecute individuals engaging in such activities. The most common activities of pro-life groups were found to be quiet or silent prayer, or offering leaflets about charitable support available to women who would like to consider alternative options to abortion.
Alina Dulgheriu, a mother who changed her mind about abortion due to an offer of help presented to her at the gates of an abortion facility, spoke out on the behalf of campaign group Be Here for Me against the criminalisation of volunteers offering practical and financial support to women in need:
“What kind of society withholds help from vulnerable women? I didn’t want an abortion but I was abandoned by my partner, my friends and society. My financial situation at the time would have made raising a child very challenging. Thanks to the help I was offered by a group outside of a clinic before my appointment, my daughter is here today. My experience is typical of hundreds of others. Refusing charitable volunteers from offering much-needed services and resources for women in my situation is wrong. Let them help.”
Censorship zones have already been imposed in five towns by local councils, and have gone as far as to ban even silent prayer. Given the internal nature of silent prayer, this measure is thought to be the introduction of the first “thoughtcrime” in UK legislation.
Last week, news broke in Bournemouth that women had been intimidated by “community-accredited safety officers” who told the women they should stop praying on a public street, even outside of the designated censorship zone. (link to PR)
Westminster weighs up censorship zones in light of human rights concerns
In Westminster, parliamentarians are considering even further-reaching legislation to introduce censorship zones in England and Wales. Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill, currently under parliamentary debate, would prohibit pro-life volunteers from “influencing”, “advising”, “persuading”, “informing”, “occupying space” or even “expressing opinion” within the vicinity of an abortion facility.
Those who breach the rules could face up to two years in prison.
The censorial provisions drew substantive criticism from members of the House of Lords, including Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Beith, who deemed the clause “the most profound restriction on free speech I have ever seen in any UK legislation.” Lord Farmer called the clause “fundamentally flawed”, and asked, “When one walks past, one sees that vigils are often small groups of harmless, mainly female, pensioners. Why should they be banned and silenced?”
The Clause has caused great controversy following a statement released from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State shortly after MPs voted to include it, admitting that the clause “could not be said to be compliant” with Convention rights as protected in the European Court of Human Rights.
Baroness Claire Fox, who advocates for abortion, pointed out that “creating prohibitions on protest on an issue-by-issue basis is not an appropriate way to make law. It sets a precedent that will inevitably lead to attempts to prevent speech, expression, information sharing, assembly or the holding of protected beliefs around other sites or in relation to other controversial or unpopular causes.”
Holyrood consider criminalising silent prayer
The Scottish government have shown support for Green Party MSP Gillian Mackay’s bill to introduce censorship zones around abortion facilities across Scotland.
The Scottish bill bears similar wording to that of the Northern Irish bill, banning “influence” within 150m of an abortion facility. An extra 100m ban would be available to be granted upon request to expand the boundary of the buffer zone.
The Scottish government made it clear at the Supreme Court hearing in July that they would include prayer within the scope of “influencing” in their legislation – the Lord Advocate testified that silent prayer could cause “psychological damage”.
Support for the policy comes despite the First Minister’s acknowledgment that so-called “buffer zones” are hindered by human rights law.
The First Minister chaired two national “summits” on the issue this year. Only stakeholders supportive of buffer zones were invited to attend these events.
When the policy idea was criticised by ADF UK’s Lois McLatchie on BBC Scotland, SNP MP Alison Thewliss called for the Scot to be deplatformed from the broadcaster, despite the BBC’s famous requirement for balanced coverage under the conditions of the Royal Charter.
Human Rights concerns in Northern Ireland
The legislation in question today – The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Northern Ireland Bill – was adopted in the Northern Irish Assembly on 24 March 2022, having been sponsored by the leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, Clare Bailey, who subsequently lost her seat in this year’s parliamentary elections.
Northern Ireland’s Attorney General, Dame Brenda King, referred the bill to the Supreme Court citing concerns that the legislation omits a defence of ‘reasonable excuse’ and is therefore incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
“We know from a Home Office review into the situation that instances of harassment outside of abortion facilities are rare, and when they happen, police already have powers to stop it. Censorship zones go much further. They introduce a disproportionate and unjustified blanket ban on all pro-life activity, including offering meaningful charitable help and support to women where they need it most. Authorities do not hold a right to silence the public expression of a viewpoint with which they simply disagree,” said Lois McLatchie, communications officer for ADF UK.