An MP is attempting to introduce censorship zones around abortion clinics in England and Wales that would criminalise offers of support and prayer outside of abortion clinics.
Labour MP, Dr Rupa Huq, has tabled an amendment to the Public Order Bill that would introduce censorship zones across England and Wales within 150m of abortion clinics.
Huq’s amendment would make it illegal to interfere “with any person’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services in that buffer zone”.
‘Interfere’ in the amendment is defined extremely broadly and would make it illegal “to influence”, “[inform] or [attempt] to inform about abortion services”, and “advise or persuade” anyone seeking to have an abortion in the abortion clinic.
The amendment is a re-tabling of an amendment brought forward by Huq in 2021. That amendment was not put to a vote after widespread Parliamentary and public opposition.
“[N]ational buffer zones would not be a proportionate response”
In 2017, former Home Secretary Amber Rudd launched a review into the scale and nature of pro-life vigils outside abortion clinics to establish if the Government would recommend the introduction of censorship zones. In the investigation, continued by the succeeding Home Secretary Sajid Javid, over 2,500 responded to a call for evidence, including abortion service providers, abortion service clients, those engaging in anti-abortion demonstrations, police forces and local authorities.
In 2018, Sajid Javid announced that the Home Office could not find adequate reason to introduce censorship zones, stating: “…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. In making my decision, I am also aware that legislation already exists to restrict protest activities that cause harm to others”.
Despite supporting abortion, a number of prominent human rights groups and campaigners have spoken out against the introduction of censorship zones. This includes Peter Tatchell, the Manifesto Club, Big Brother Watch, Index on Censorship and the Freedom Association.
No evidence of harassment or intimidation
A similar bill was voted through by Stormont last month but has since been delayed and is being reviewed by the Supreme Court over concerns that the Bill was not within the “legislative competence” of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Gillian Mackay, an MSP for the Green Party has also launched a Bill in Holyrood to introduce censorship zones outside abortion clinics in Scotland.
Mackay’s Bill is opposed by the women-led group ‘Compassion Scotland’, who said: “The peaceful presence of volunteers signposting practical support and counsel has been a lifeline in the past to women who feel they have no choice but an abortion”.
Through Freedom of Information Requests, Compassion Scotland revealed there have been no incidents of harassment or intimidation outside thirteen different locations performing abortions in Scotland from 2016 to 2021.
Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson, said: “Huq’s amendment seeks to make it illegal to be visibly pro-life within 150m of an abortion clinic. It is direct discrimination against a particular viewpoint. Legislation already exists to prevent harassment and intimidation, and wherever it exists, the law should be used to prevent it. Not only is this legislation draconian in its scope, there already exists legislation to deal with the alleged problem”.