25 January 2024

The government must stick to liberal principles when it comes to abortion buffer zones

By Francis Cox

Abortion buffer zones are in the news again after the Home Secretary was accused of watering down plans to prevent protests near clinics. While critics badge this as an issue around a woman’s right to choose, this debate is actually not about the rights or wrongs of abortion. It is a debate on the limits of free speech and religious expression.

Of course, it is wrong for people to harass and intimidate women who choose to access abortion services. No Christian teachings can justify such behaviours. We rightly have long-standing laws in this country to protect people from harassment and abuse. That said, in a healthy, liberal democratic society, it is important people are free to gather and express their views, even if the views are upsetting to some. A right only to say what will not offend others is not a right worth having.

This issue has been hotly debated across the United Kingdom for over a decade, with very strong feelings on both sides. The government has previously, rightly, maintained that it is not proportionate to introduce censorship zones, where routine religious activities and non-abusive speech become unlawful. However, as a result of the weak Truss government in October 2022, MPs got a free vote and bulldozed a law through Parliament, which has led to the creation of buffer zones, where certain otherwise lawful activities are restricted within 150m of a hospital or abortion clinic. The poor wording of the law has now led to disputes around how it should be interpreted. 

The government has the very difficult task of drawing up and consulting on guidance for the police on how to interpret this new law – made particularly difficult with novel concepts, such as criminalising ‘influencing’ someone. We have seen some rather shocking interpretations of the buffer zones created through Public Spaces Protection Orders, where people have been arrested for silently praying alone and having a small pro-life sticker in a car – later to be acquitted in court – which the government has rightly needed to consider in the guidance. I cannot imagine the guidance is warmly welcomed by pro-life groups, who will see infringements on their ability to offer help to women accessing abortions. But it is the pro-choice lobby who are vocally very unhappy. They claim the measure is being ‘watered down’, despite being seemingly entirely consistent with what is in the statute and considering all the fundamental human rights that the left so apparently love.

The proponents of buffer zones win the support of large sections of the public through presenting it as a ‘women’s rights’ issue and claiming there are lots of people going out of their way to attack women who choose to have abortions. However, when looking into it further, I see no evidence of this. In fact, I find their arguments rather difficult to follow. They argue that we need to stop harassment and intimidation. Yet they happily brand their opponents with offensive terms like ‘anti-choice bigots and ‘religious fanatics’. We even saw the drawing up of a ‘hit list’ of MPs who voted against buffer zones to be shamed and targeted. We hear them argue for ‘choice’, but then want to take away a woman’s right engage freely in a conversation, or receive information on alternatives to abortion.

Women are speaking up about this: the right to pray silently, or offer help, is not unimportant and can be understood as non-threatening and part of a genuine choice. 

Pro-choice groups assert that the Home Office has deviated from the statute by saying silent prayer is not automatically criminalised. Yet the statute makes no reference to prayer and pro-choice MPs even said in Parliament that they would not want to ban all silent prayer.

So where can we go from here? There is a certain amount of double-think. Some argue that it is wrong to be heavy handed with climate-change protesters who have a fundamental right to express their views, but when talking in the context of abortion, these people suddenly remember that freedom of expression is a qualified right that can be infringed. They argue that the legislation is based on ‘successful safe access zones’ in Australia and Canada, but do not make any reference to the much broader remit of the legislation for England and Wales, such as the inclusion of people’s private homes and the criminalising of anything that ‘influences’ a woman’s decision. Labour MPs argue that the measure should have commenced long ago, given Royal Assent for the legislation was in May. Yet I do not hear these MPs putting pressure on the Government to introduce the new Stop and Search measures that were introduced through the same Act last May.

The government is now considering the responses to its consultation on the guidance. Exactly what will happen next is unclear. However, we can be certain that this debate will go on for a long time to come.

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Francis Cox is a writer.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.