The story of the latest European attack on free speech goes something like this: radical climate protesters caused drama, blocked traffic, and disrupted normal life. The Tories introduced a bill that would allow police to crack down upon this kind of protest more easily. Labour responded by pushing for an amendment to the bill criminalizing any anti-abortion activity within a zone around an abortion clinic. Whilst Labour’s amendment passed, a different amendment (proposed by the Tories) which would exclude praying, even silently, from the long list of restricted activities, failed. In effect, the United Kingdom is close to passing a bill that would ban speaking, standing, or praying anywhere near an abortion facility. The term “Orwellian” is overused in our politics, however, it applies here.
Clause 9 is the critical portion of the bill that deals with protests outside abortion clinics, and its language is chilling. In its own words, the bill will make anyone guilty of an offense “who is within a buffer zone and who interferes with any person’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services in that buffer zone.” This buffer zone is any public area within a 150-meter radius of an abortion facility (for all you Americans, that’s just shy of 500 feet). The impact of this law all hinges on the word ‘interferes’, and conveniently the bill outlines exactly what the term means. The full list of possible meanings is as follows:
A. seeks to influence,
B. persistently, continuously or repeatedly occupies,
C. impedes or threatens,
D. intimidates or harasses,
E. advises or persuades, attempts to advise or persuade, or otherwise expresses opinion,
F. informs or attempts to inform about abortion services by any means, including, without limitation, graphic, physical, verbal or written means, or
G. sketches, photographs, records, stores, broadcasts, or transmits images, audio, likenesses or personal data of any person without express consent.
Prongs C and D both seem reasonable; being adamantly pro-life, the last thing I want to see is protestors using violence or threat of violence against the women preyed upon by the industry, and the same holds true for most pro-lifers. Prong G does not seem immediately awful, and its acceptability is more about where someone stands on public recording with and without consent rather than the abortion issue. The others are another story.
Perhaps most revealing is prong F, the ban on informing or attempting to inform. A pamphlet or sign that describes an abortion procedure or merely saying that a heartbeat begins in the sixth week would violate this; no subjective opinions or false information is needed. Beyond being a horrendously repressive policy, it also betrays a deep insecurity that pro-abortion lawmakers have for simply sharing true information concerning the issue. It’s not penalizing misinformation or deliberate attempts to mislead; politely communicating true verifiable scientific facts is banned.
Prong E is perhaps the most openly Orwellian in its language, truly lays bare how much of an affront to liberty this bill is. The words “or otherwise expresses opinion” could not be more plainly an attack on freedom of expression. Freedom of expression or speech has long been a principle of English law. Its defenders have always cited the natural right to discuss, reason and debate ideas, especially political ones.
Under prong B, merely being present within that 150-meter zone can be sufficient evidence that you are committing an offense. No other action is necessary, not waving a sign or shouting, not blocking traffic or entry, merely standing on the footpath is apparently interference.
Prong A is astounding in its breadth. The language of the bill is such that any act whatsoever that relates to the topic of abortion is subject to penalty. Most notably, we have recently seen people who were silently praying outside an abortion centre, outside of opening hours, arrested because of similarly worded local laws.
It doesn’t require being pro-life to acknowledge that this bill is too broad. The impetus for this clause’s creation is the abortion issue, sure, but the real problem we’re seeing here is an excessive and politically motivated crackdown on individual freedom. No one should go to prison for praying on a footpath, peacefully waving a sign, or many of the other things this bill seeks to penalize.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.