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Don’t criminalise support

The government should change course on Clause 9

Artillery Row

It seems Just Stop Oil just won’t stop. Despite declaring a cease-fire on the M25 earlier this week, orange paint has continued to be flung and shop windows smashed — all, apparently, for the good of the climate. 

The Public Order Bill, which heads to Committee Stage this week, sets out to deal with such societal disruptions, which have majorly inconvenienced working people who are trying to get this country back up and running. 

Is offering help really to be made illegal in modern Britain? 

Thanks to a last-minute Labour Party amendment pushed through in the final days of the Truss premiership, the bill has taken a turn away from reasonable measures in the public interest towards viewpoint-based censorship. Whilst the majority of the legislation deals with types of protest, Clause 9 restricts the content of certain groups. A pro-life individual who is present outside an abortion facility would be prohibited not only from harassment and intimidation — which is clearly abhorrent and already illegal — but also from merely “advising”, “informing”, “influencing” and even “expressing an opinion” in the public space near by an abortion facility — even if the information provided is welcomed by the woman visiting the abortion centre. 

Many across the country have reservations about the role of pro-life volunteers in this space. Where incidents of harassment occur, they should of course be dealt with swiftly and harshly by police, who already have ample powers available to do so. Beyond sensationalist headlines, a 2018 government review found that the main activities of these groups are quiet or silent prayer and offering leaflets about help available for women who would like to avoid abortion, if only they had a realistic alternative. 

Is offering help really to be made illegal in modern Britain? 

If so, this will be (as hinted by the government itself in a very rare admission) completely out of kilter with human rights guaranteed to us by the European Convention.

When cases brought before German courts tested the proportionality of buffer-zone equivalent measures in Frankfurt and Pforzheim, freedom of speech and assembly were upheld, and the pro-lifers were again allowed to pray in the desired public streets. Britain surely shouldn’t be seeking a more authoritarian approach. 

If things have really worsened outside abortion facilities since the last review in 2018, then it is crucial that police tackle genuine harassment and ensure prosecution. All new laws must be evidenced-based. We should calm this haste towards more severe restrictions until we know the true state of play in 2022. 

The bill wouldn’t remove influence, but it would remove alternatives

In any case, the attempt of the Bill to strip away all forms of “influence” from a woman considering abortion is futile. From the moment a woman finds herself pregnant, societal pressures are felt — from the workplace, from unsupportive partners, from socio-economic difficulties. The bill wouldn’t remove influence, but it would remove help, a genuine offer of an alternative for those nearly 1 in 5 women who go through with an abortion under pressure, against their will. Many have testified to the support they received from these groups which have empowered them to become mothers. Who is the government to tell these women what information they can hear, when, where and from whom? 

We’ve become acclimatised in recent years to policy initiatives to tackle mis– or dis-information. This bill would surely mark the first where the government knowingly shuts out mere “information” — leaflets about charitable services available, should somebody wish to find out more about their options. 

“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!” the old rule of thumb goes. Clause 9 flips that wisdom on its head. It makes those who peacefully voice a minority view subject to a potential two year prison sentence. 

This wasn’t the intention of the bill. It isn’t in-keeping with our government’s manifesto promise to champion freedom of expression for everyone. It’s strange that the amendment even received support from the Labour party, who have fiercely defended freedom of protest in their rallying against the Public Order Bill. Does their support for protesters only extend as far as the protesters with whom they ideologically agree? 

In the name of preventing actual, damaging disruption on our streets from hooligans glueing themselves to inappropriate places, the bill has acted to in fact bring about much harsher consequences to those who quietly or even silently pray, or offer help to women. The Clause needs urgent redress to ensure that only real criminal activity is criminal. Peaceful prayers, and women looking for alternatives, should not become the victims of sweeping criminalisation, simply for the sake of a hot-button culture war debate. 

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