Britain’s abortion buffers
LAW | Pro-life activity outlawed outside abortion businesses
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Americans fixated on the pomp and ceremony of King Charles’ May 6 coronation likely missed the enactment, just days earlier, of a U.K. law with far-reaching ramifications for civil liberties. The legislation extends broad protection to abortion centers, a move critics say makes real the concept of “thought crimes.” Under the law, a pro-life sidewalk counselor would have to remain a football field’s length away from an abortion center.
The new British sovereign gave “royal assent” to—that is, signed—the bill on May 2. Such royal assent is a mere formality in the U.K.: The last time a British monarch refused assent was in 1708.
Section 9 of the Public Order Act 2023 criminalizes all forms of “influence” within 150 meters—about 492 feet—of any abortion facility in England and Wales. Among other things, it makes it a criminal offense subject to fine to cause “harassment, alarm or distress to any person in connection with a decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services at an abortion clinic.”
Members of Parliament ultimately rejected amendments to the law that would have explicitly protected silent prayer and consensual conversations.
Pro-life activist Isabel Vaughan-Spruce faces legal trouble for violating a similar local law in the English city of Birmingham. After Vaughan-Spruce stood silently and prayed near an abortion center on March 6, six police officers bundled her into a van. She was released on bail conditions that bar her from the zone around the abortion facility but had not yet been formally charged as of mid-May.
Birmingham’s public space order specifically mentions prayer as an activity not allowed in the restricted area. The national law does not mention prayer, but some observers worry it could be interpreted that way.
Section 9’s creation of a “safe access zone” is similar to attempts by some U.S. states and municipalities to implement buffer zones around abortion facilities. Yet the U.K. restrictions are more extreme in size and scope: U.S. courts have generally struck down attempts to draw broad protest-free zones around abortion facilities, instead upholding only laws against threats, harassment, or physical obstruction of access to facilities. No such U.S. laws have been interpreted to bar silent prayer.
Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom International in London, noted that courts in the United States have the power to strike down laws violating the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of free speech and religious exercise. Not so with U.K. court rulings, which are not strictly binding on Parliament.
“There could be a declaration of incompatibility with human rights, with the European Convention on Human Rights,” Igunnubole said of the possible outcome of any potential court case. He added that since Parliament is sovereign under British law, it could choose not to revise the statute, essentially ignoring the court ruling.
Yet Igunnubole gave reasons for hope. Local British law officers and judges could take a more reasonable interpretation of the law, he said. And if a U.K. court rules the law violates human rights, the decision could bring political pressure on Parliament to amend the law and protect civil liberties.