Written by Kathy Clubb
23rd Oct 2023
Most Australian pro-lifers are by now quite familiar with so-called “Safe-Access” zones, otherwise known as “exclusion”, “bubble” or “buffer” zones. These zones are designed to restrict the movements and free speech of those advocating for life near abortion businesses, and were ostensibly legislated to prevent abortion-minded women from “harassment”. Exclusion-zones of 150m exist in all of Australia’s states and territories except in the ACT, where a 50m zone is enforced around its only free-standing abortion provider.
These laws have greatly hindered the ability of pro-lifers to offer help to those women who are ambivalent about terminating the lives of their children and have also diminished our ability to draw attention to the existence of abortion businesses at their specific locations. Many people who might be vaguely “pro-choice” might not be so supportive of abortions taking place next door to their home or place of business!
However, if you are an Australian pro-lifer trying to negotiate exclusion-zones in the course of your Apostolic work, then spare a thought for members of the UK’s pro-life community: some of them also have to deal with the threat of arrest for silent prayer.
One of those is Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, Director of the UK March for Life. Isabel has been involved in pro-life witness and pregnancy support for two decades. During the past year, she has been arrested twice for silently praying inside her local council exclusion-zone, and she spoke to FLI via Zoom to explain the way abortion bubble-zones work in the UK.
“There are currently five local council PSPO’s, or Public Space Protection Orders, operating in the UK. Each one has slightly different wording but they all ban forms of prayer outside an abortion business. One of them even specifically mentions that making the Sign of the Cross is unlawful.”
The PSPO operating in Birmingham, where Isabel attends as a pro-life witness, attempts to ban peaceful prayer within and around 120m of an abortion business. After the law went into effect, Isabel decided to continue praying silently inside the zone on days the abortion facility was closed. In November of last year, local residents, who have long resented the presence of pro-lifers in the area, reported Isabel to the police. Isabel was arrested and against the advice of the Crown Prosecutor, police laid a charge and the matter proceeded to the Birmingham Magistrates Court. When the Magistrate heard her case, Isabel was acquitted within one minute and is now considering taking legal action against the police department.
But that was not the end of the matter. Two weeks after being acquitted of the first charge, Isabel was arrested again.
“I went back to pray and this time, six police officers were sent with a police van. The police told me that prayers are an offence and although I was given a three-month bail period, they didn’t lay any charges against me. I later received an email saying that no charges were to be laid.”
According to ADF UK, an organisation which gave legal assistance to Isabel, PSPO legislation criminalises “thoughtcrime” and represents a danger to the rights of all UK citizens. The ADF UK website states that:
“Isabel’s case exemplifies the dangers of buffer zones. In 2022, ADF UK and other civil liberty groups warned that broadly drafted laws under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act 2022, will inevitably be used by police officers to erode the most basic of freedoms.”
Although pro-lifers have attempted legal challenges to these PSPO’s, Isabel says that the real crunch will come next year when a national buffer zone law goes into effect. Isabel told FLI:
“I am concerned that unless it is made unequivocally clear in the wording of any future laws regarding buffer zones that prayer is not a crime, then those responsible for implementing the law, may be more driven by politics and ideology than by their professional duty.”
Nationwide legislation was passed in March in Britain’s House of Commons and will cover bubble-zones across England and Wales. The new law will ban all forms of ‘influence’ outside an abortion facility, despite evidence that the witness of pro-lifers is almost always peaceful. Additionally, exemptions for silent prayer and consensual discussions were voted down by a large majority.
Similar laws have just gone into effect in Northern Ireland, with the establishment of the largest buffer-zones in the world. It is now illegal to pray or witness 200 m from the entrance to an abortion business, but providers may extend this distance if they feel it is warranted for the ‘protection’ of their clients.
These laws may be seen as part of a wider soft persecution of Christians in the West, one which is as relentless as it is hidden, and which is often presented under the guise of promoting “tolerance” and punishing “offence”. It seems uncontroversial to mainstream society that offending someone by disagreeing with their pro-abortion beliefs is a worse crime than the wholesale slaughter of babies in the womb. It is equally uncontroversial that legislation can be enacted to target a very small minority who are almost without exception peaceful and harmless.
As all opponents of exclusion-zones aimed at pro-lifers agree, this kind of law is quite redundant. If any harassment takes place near an abortion business, then it should be dealt with under the existing anti-harassment laws of that jurisdiction. But more importantly, lawmakers need to acknowledge the great results that can be achieved when people of good will offer help to abortion-minded mothers: the preservation of a helpless human being. Isabel relates that, as we have found here in Australia, many women choose abortion out of desperation. Such women eagerly continue their pregnancies once someone takes the time to give them an alternative:
“Over a period of a few years I remember counting over a hundred women who changed their mind about abortion in Birmingham, some of them literally at the last minute, because there were people willing to offer them alternatives and real solutions to their problems rather than create more difficulties by promoting abortion. Being outside an abortion centre literally saves lives and presents women with a real choice.”