Peaceful prolife vigils must be allowed freedom of expression


The last year has seen the growth of the Back Off campaign, an alliance of various organisations and individuals who want to impose “buffer zones” around abortion clinics where no pro-life vigils or protests would be allowed. Back Off has some very powerful supporters. High-profile politicians like Labour leadership candidates Yvette Cooper and Jeremy Corbyn have pledged their support.

When powerful and influential organisations and individuals are trying to undermine free expression and the right to protest, it’s worth taking a closer look at the issue.

What exactly is it that Back Off are asking for? They say:

We believe we need specific legislation to ensure women can access pregnancy advice and abortion centres free from interference and intimidation, as has been enacted in other countries. We propose the establishment of “buffer” or “access” zones around registered pregnancy advisory bureaux and clinics, in which anti-abortion activity cannot take place. This would stop activity taking place directly outside centres, ensure women are not approached unsolicited, and prevent other activities designed to cause distress – eg filming and strewing the pathway with pictures or models of foetuses.

The first thing to say is that the police already have considerable powers to prevent street harassment. Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act prohibits “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour”. It is a criminal offence if anyone “displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”

If people are acting badly outside abortion clinics, the police and the criminal justice system can deal with it through the existing law. It’s unclear why there is any need for further restrictions on peaceful protests and vigils, except as a way of intimidating and silencing pro-life voices.

It’s hard not to see the Back Off campaign as an attempt by pro-abortionists and their allies at the highest levels of politics and the health establishment to distract attention from the many scandals and shocking revelations about the abortion industry in the last year or so. Two of the biggest of these have been the General Medical Council’s presigning cover-up, and the revelations about sex-selective abortion, which made it clear that the Department of Health had an entirely different understanding of what the Abortion Act means from abortion providers. But there have been other shocking stories too, notably the government’s use of the new Procedures for the Approval of Independent Sector Places for the Termination of Pregnancy to undermine the enforcement and regulation of the law without any real debate.

It seems, however, that instead of engaging in honest debate about these issues, pro-abortionists are seeking to shut down opposition to abortion.

As an organisation, Life does not take part in protests or prayer vigils at abortion clinics (we also never display graphic images of abortion). It is not the way we do things. However, we do support the right of other groups to take part in protests and vigils if they wish. The right to free expression, and free protest, is deeply important.

These protests should be peaceful and orderly and should not involve harassment of any kind. We are opposed to any physical harassment of women or any attempt to obstruct women from going into an abortion clinic. If genuine harassment is occurring, then it should be prevented. No pro-lifer should behave aggressively towards women. It goes against all Life’s principles to do so. But it is important that we are clear about what actually counts as harassment.

Offering a woman a non-explicit leaflet outlining alternatives to abortion, or asking politely whether she would like to discuss her decision with a counsellor, are not harassment, and it would be illogical and sinister to treat them as such.

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