Abortion clinic buffer zones are bad news for free speech and for women

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In the crumbling days of the Truss empire, one particularly damaging legislative proposal survived the chaos and has made it through to further parliamentary consideration in the House of Lords. It's a poorly-conceived piece of paper that would be detrimental to women in crisis across the country.

That piece of paper - Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill – will ban charitable volunteers from offering help to pregnant women who would like to keep their baby, if only they had a little support.

That's not where it ends.

The bill expressly places up to a two-year prison sentence on anyone who "advises", "persuades", "occupies space", "informs", "influences" or even "otherwise expresses opinion" in the public space around abortion facilities.

The threshold of criminality for mere conversation on a public street has been brought jaw-droppingly low. How could this impact a mother, or social worker, advising her confused teenage daughter in that public zone?

The reasoning given behind this bill is that we need to ban "harassment" outside of abortion facilities. As Christians, it's clear that we must all stand against harassment against women – not only outside an abortion facility, but everywhere. In fact, we can be thankful that harassment is already illegal.

So what does this text really do?

The efforts to ban "advising", "informing", and "influencing" would go far beyond sweeping out harassment. It would criminalise charities such as the Good Council Network who offer practical and financial support to women who, facing abortion, would like to continue their pregnancy – if only they had a little help.

These women matter. Almost 1 in 5 women who have abortions in the UK do so under pressure, against their will. Perhaps they're pressured by family members or unsupportive partners – perhaps its by socio-economic circumstances, the fear of losing a job, the cost of rising house prices and childcare that make women feel ill-equipped.

In 2022, no woman should feel that abortion is her only option.

As the Church, we're commanded to serve the most vulnerable in society. We know that every life is worth fighting for, and in a pregnancy, both lives matter. That's more than a slogan. Pro-life is for the whole life. Offering shelter, financial support, friendship and practical baby supplies is where the rubber meets the road for putting the pro-life ideal into practice.

So many women have testified to the benefits of charities who do just that. Alina Dulgheriu was abandoned, jobless and alone when she found herself in a crisis pregnancy. She thought abortion was her "only realistic option" - until she was offered a leaflet, informing her that support was available if she would rather choose life. She did. She flourished as an empowered mother, and began to volunteer herself to offer this helping hand back to women who face the situation she was in.

Clause 9 would ban this support from being available to women like Alina. It's not pro-choice. It's no choice.

Indeed, to ban even "occupying space", as the legislation would, could put innocent people into prison simply for believing what they believe, rather than doing or saying anything at all.

Concerningly, this might be a first for the UK in terms of imprisoning people simply for their personal beliefs; but even more concerningly, it may not be the last.

Once the principle of censoring a certain opinion in a public space is introduced, where might it end? Could embassies ask for buffer zones to silence dissident protesters who are causing discomfort? Could efforts be turned to censor Christian evangelists who bring the gospel to areas where authorities decide it isn't welcome?

Clause 9 is worrying – for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the freedom for women to hear about offers available to them. But there's room for change yet. After the bill progresses through the House of Lords, it's likely that MPs will have an opportunity to consider amending the vague, unjust laws at stake.

In British democracy, we have a voice to call out for change where it's needed. You can ask your MP to consider re-examining the need for buffer zones in just two easy clicks. Find out more at www.adf.uk/ask-your-mp.