Portsmouth council voted by 33-1 last week to seek a ban on pro-life vigils. Bishop Philip Egan, who took part in a vigil in the city just last month, offered a chilling assessment of the vote. “The council’s decision,” he said, “is yet another example of the ever more draconian restrictions being placed by our so-called liberal society on freedom of religious expression. With the current tides of regulation, it will become ever more difficult for Catholics to live out and witness to their faith.”
Portsmouth is the second council to favour a ban on the small, peaceful prayer vigils that take place outside abortion clinics up and down the country. The first was Ealing in west London, which is now considering “a range of measures” against pro-lifers. They include public space protection orders (PSPOs): time-limited ordinances normally reserved for menaces such as street drinking.
But abortion supporters are already planning to go further. Ealing MP Rupa Huq has written to Home Secretary Amber Rudd demanding “buffer zones” outside clinics nationwide on the spurious grounds that pro-lifers are “harassing” women. The letter was signed by 113 MPs, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Lib Dem leader Vince Cable. London mayor Sadiq Khan has also expressed his support.
An outright ban on pro-life witness outside clinics is well within the realm of possibility. In Canada, the province of Ontario has passed just such a law. Anyone who violates the “safe zones” (by, for example, advising a woman not to have an abortion within 50 metres of a clinic) faces six months in jail and a fine of up to $5,000 (£3,000).
In Britain, the Government is weak and could be casting around for a social issue on which it can appear “progressive”. Rudd may conclude that “buffer zones” is a relatively painless way for the Government to win praise from Britain’s otherwise hostile political and media establishments.
We must ensure that such a path would not be cost-free. We should let our MPs know that we expect them to uphold the fundamental human rights of freedom of expression and assembly. If they support “buffer zones”, then it will be difficult to vote for them at the next election.
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