Scott Benton is MP for for Blackpool South.
Later today, the House of Commons is likely to debate Rupa Huq’s amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that would introduce censorship (‘buffer’) zones outside all abortion facilities in England and Wales.
This amendment calls for 150-metre ‘buffer’ zones around abortion facilities, within which it would be criminal to “interfere […] with any person’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services”. However, “interferes with” is very broadly defined and would include anyone who “informs or attempts to inform about abortion services by any means” within the zone.
This would effectively ban any form of peaceful demonstration or offering of practical, emotional, or financial support to people entering these facilities, and those found guilty of doing so would be liable, in the first instance, of up to six months imprisonment (a second instance could lead to up to two years imprisonment) and/or an unlimited fine.
Given the extreme penalties proposed by this amendment, it is unsurprising that polling released this week from Savanta ComRes of over 2,000 British adults has found that a mere 21 per cent supported such a radical change. It even found that that support for such a move was lowest among 18 to 34-year-olds, with just 15 per cent supporting the introduction of nationwide ‘censorship zones’ around abortion clinics.
The poll also showed that a majority of the general public supported either having zero restrictions on freedom of expression outside abortion facilities, or were satisfied with the restrictions offered by current legislation, which allow an individual to be charged if they are implicated in harassment, and under which local councils are authorised to introduce restrictions around specific clinics if they are experiencing ongoing public order problems.
Moreover, Dr Huq’s implication that already criminalised actions are characteristic of pro-life demonstrations is not only unfair but entirely inaccurate. Indeed, an extensive Home Office review into the topic of pro-life demonstrations concluded that introducing nationwide buffer zones “would not be a proportionate response, considering the experiences of the majority of hospitals and clinics, and considering that the majority of activities are more passive in nature”. It also highlighted that “legislation already exists to restrict protest activities that cause harm to others”.
Whether or not Dr Huq believes her desperate bid to quash pro-life wrongthink is right, British voters clearly disagree. Therefore a decision by Parliament to follow her line would be a flagrant violation of our duties as the caretakers of representative democracy.
If introduced, abortion clinic censorship zones would provide a chilling legal precedent for cracking down on freedom of expression, far beyond the issue of abortion rights. Indeed, many prominent human rights groups and campaigners, several of whom are pro-choice including veteran LGBT rights champion Peter Tatchell, the Manifesto Club, Big Brother Watch, Index on Censorship, and the Freedom Association, have spoken out against proposals for such zones.
Moreover, countless women have reported receiving life-changing support offered by pro-life groups outside these clinics. While many women en route to an abortion facility may already be sure of their decision, why does Dr Huq think she has a right to ban women from seeking an alternate path? Or from accepting help with finances, housing, legal advice, and protection from domestic abuse, which is at the root of many women’s initial decision to seek an abortion, even if they would ideally wish to go through with the pregnancy?
Take the case of Alina Dulgheriu, who decided to keep her baby after she “walked into the Marie Stopes clinic and a woman standing outside offered [her] a leaflet … and said she could offer help if [she] wanted it” – after she reportedly received no help inside the Marie Stopes clinic aside from the offer to end her pregnancy.
I hope that, regardless of their stance on the wider question of abortion rights, my colleagues on both sides of the House will vigorously oppose this amendment that threatens to further damage the delicate fabric of freedom in Britain, putting peaceful demonstrators at risk of financial ruin or imprisonment for peacefully exercising their fundamental human rights.