As the House of Commons looks set to introduce censorship zones outside abortion clinics across England and Wales, a group of MPs have tabled an amendment to ensure that the legislation does not criminalise thought.
Set to be debated tomorrow (Tuesday 7 March), the Public Order Bill currently includes a clause to mandate 150m ‘buffer zones’ around abortion facilities nationwide. The clause makes “influencing” any person who wants to access an abortion clinic illegal. This vague term has left campaigners concerned that this Bill could make silent prayer illegal as well as consensual communication.
However, Andrew Lewer MP has introduced a proposed amendment that would ensure that silent prayer and consensual communication are not made illegal outside abortion clinics.
In a piece for the Express, Lewer explains why his amendment is needed, saying “The scope of the term is dangerously broad. Should harassing and abusing women trying to access abortion be illegal? Absolutely and it already is.”
“Should simply offering an information leaflet about support services available to women who would like an alternative choice than abortion be criminal?”
“Should praying peacefully inside one’s own head, or holding a sign that says “here to help if you need it”, be subject to heavy-handed fines?”
“All things considered, it is somewhat bizarre that at a time of severe pressure on the police, we are adding “thoughtcrime” to a list of things they will have to assess and prosecute. Are they not busy enough dealing with the real issues?”
In addition to, in his words, exempting “consensual communication, silent prayer, and peaceful presence from criminalisation”, Lewer has also added an amendment that would pause the implementation of censorship zones until the Government has conducted a review.
When the clause in question was debated in the House of Lords, Baroness Claire Fox, who is herself a supporter of abortion, stated “The point is that I am pro-choice. I do not want us to undermine women’s agency in our enthusiasm to support laws presented as protecting women… Influence is something we should protect. I want to influence you now. I might be failing, because you have the capacity to listen and make a decision. Influencing is the basis of democracy.”
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 pro-life vigils, police forces and local authorities.
In 2018, Sajid Javid announced that the Home Office could not find adequate reason to introduce censorship zones, stating 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. In making my decision, I am also aware that legislation already exists to restrict protest activities that cause harm to others”.
Right To Life UK spokesperson Catherine Robinson said “As a piece of legislation, this attempt to introduce censorship zones is appalling and entirely ideologically driven. This buffer zones clause in the Public Order Bill is nothing short of the criminalisation of a particular point of view. It makes it illegal to be publicly, and even privately, pro-life in a certain part of the country.”