Britain’s House of Commons approved legislation Tuesday to create “buffer zones” around abortion facilities that would prohibit a wide range of behavior, including silent prayer.
An amendment to exempt prayer and consensual conversation was voted down by lawmakers, who added the buffer zones to the Public Order Bill.
The final vote came the day after a pro-life woman was arrested in Birmingham for the second time for praying silently in an alleged violation of a local buffer zone law.
Welcome to the UK, where you will be persecuted for free thoughts.
Silently praying is now a criminal offence.
What a great place to live. pic.twitter.com/dz3m43LsGS
— Anna McGovern (@AnnaMcGovernUK) March 7, 2023
Opponents of the legislation decried the bill’s passage as a strike against individual liberty in the United Kingdom.
“Today’s vote marks a watershed moment for fundamental rights and freedoms in our country,” Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for the ADF UK legal group, said March 7.
“Parliament had an opportunity to reject the criminalization of free thought, which is an absolute right, and embrace individual liberty for all. Instead, Parliament chose to endorse censorship and criminalize peaceful activities such as silent prayer and consensual conversation.”
“Today it’s abortion. Tomorrow it could be another contested matter of political debate,” Igunnubole said. “The principle remains that the government should never be able to punish anyone for prayer, let alone silent prayer, and peaceful and consensual conversation.”
The bill would create a buffer zone of 150 meters, about 492 feet, outside abortion facilities in England and Wales. It bars intimidation, harassment, or interference toward those seeking or providing abortions. Violation would be punished with a fine, a change from a previously proposed penalty that called for a prison sentence. However, the fine is potentially unlimited.
The law’s broad provision bars any act that has the effect of “influencing any person’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services.”
Alithea Williams, public policy manager for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, warned that the buffer zone law “means that ordinary citizens will be branded criminals and subject to crippling financial penalties for witnessing peacefully and offering help to women in need.”
She characterized the presence of pro-life advocates near abortion facilities as “a real lifeline for women.”
“Many children are alive today because their mother received help and support from a compassionate pro-life person outside a clinic,” Williams said. “Many women feel pressured or coerced into having an abortion, and pro-life vigils give them options. Now their choices have been taken away.”
Lawmakers voted against Conservative MP Andrew Lewer’s amendment to specifically exempt silent prayer and consensual conversation in the zones, dubbed “censorship zones” by critics. The amendment failed by a vote of 116 to 299.
“It is very disappointing that MPs have rejected even this modest amendment, which was trying to ensure that thought crime was not enshrined in U.K. law,” Williams said. She said the vote proves that MPs “approve of arresting people even for silent prayer.”
“They heard the outrageous example of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce being arrested for silently praying in Birmingham and decided this needed to happen nationwide,” she said.
Lewer criticized the bill in a March 5 opinion essay for the U.K. newspaper The Sunday Express, warning that the country is introducing “thought crime” into the U.K. He warned that such zones could easily be expanded to other forms of protests and gatherings.
A 2018 government review, he noted, found that the zones would be “disproportionate” and unnecessary because almost all activity was peaceful, harassment was rare, and any criminality was covered by existing law. The prosecution of peaceful bystanders would mean fewer police resources for addressing violent crime, he added.
Several localities have already implemented protection orders creating a buffer zone around abortion clinics. Adam Smith-Connor was fined for praying outside an abortion facility under a protection order in Bournemouth in November 2022.
Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, co-director of March for Life UK, and Archdiocese of Birmingham priest Father Sean Gough were acquitted in February of all charges against them after they were accused of breaking a Birmingham council protection order for praying in front of an abortion clinic. The charges concerned separate incidents.
The day before the vote, Vaughan-Spruce was again arrested for praying outside the same abortion facility.
“Only three weeks ago, it was made clear by the court that my silent prayers were not a crime. And yet, again, I have been arrested and treated as a criminal for having the exact same thoughts in my head, in the same location,” she said in a statement Monday.
“The ambiguity of laws that limit free expression and thought — even in peaceful, consensual conversation or in silent, internal prayer — leads to abject confusion, to the detriment of important fundamental rights. Nobody should be criminalized for their thoughts,” read the statement.
Six officers attended her arrest. A video of part of the encounter between Vaughan-Spruce and officers was posted to Twitter by ADF UK.
An officer asked her to step away and outside the exclusion zone, to which she responded: “But I’m not protesting, I’m not engaged in any of the activities prohibited.”
“But you’ve said you’re engaging in prayer, which is the offense,” the officer said.
“Silent prayer,” she responded.
“No, but you were still engaging in prayer. It is an offense,” he continued.
“I disagree,” she said.
“So you would rather be arrested and taken away than stand outside the exclusion zone, is that what you’re saying?” the officer asked.
“I am not committing an offense, I’m not intimidating or harassing, and I’m not protesting,” she said in the video excerpt.