The Bill that introduces buffer zones in front of hospitals and abortion clinics in the UK has been approved by the House of Commons. It grants broad discretionary powers to police and punishes consensual conversations and silent prayers. On Tuesday, 7 March, UK citizens realized that their country has turned toward a regime similar to the one described in George Orwell’s 1984: you can go to jail not only for what you say, whisper or pray but also for what you think. The prospect of the threat of being convicted of “thought crimes” is a real danger. It is already clear that the controversial and undemocratic Public Order Bill, voted by a clear majority in the House of Commons a few days ago, will come down hard on democratic freedoms, and religious freedoms in particular.
Perhaps the Public Order Bill, which gives police “additional powers to crack down on behavior” that causes “annoyance, harassment, alarm or distress” might seem harmless. But in reality, the Bill, intended to toughen laws against the violent protests that have recently characterized the United Kingdom, has also been heavily exploited by abortion politicians to crack down on the pro-life movement and censor fundamental freedoms and alternative choices to abortion. The most controversial and debated part of the Public Order Bill is Clause 10, which introduces “buffer zones” for a 150-m radius around every abortion facility in England and Wales. The Draconian legislation makes it a criminal offense–punishable by fines of 100 to 1,000 pounds and criminal record entry–to exercise any form of influence outside an abortion facility. Actions that could be perceived as “influential” include involvement in abortion-related conversations, even if they are consensual, as well as engaging in silent prayer.
Ironically, the powers granted by the Public Order Bill are so influential that they not only stifle the modest pro-life support that still exists in the UK, but also undo the democratic foundations that once made Britain great: religious freedom, freedom of movement, freedom of speech and the freedom to protest peacefully. For the first time in modern British history, precisely in order to prevent people from getting into consensual conversations on the sensitive issue of abortion, the Parliament has given the police broad legal powers to charge and convict people for their thoughts and for the content of their speech in these buffer zones–thoughts and speech that would be perfectly legitimate in any other part of the country.
The vote came just a day after Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, a Catholic and co-director of March for Life UK, was arrested for the second time for praying silently near the BPAS Robert’s clinic in Kings Norton, Birmingham, under a public space protection order. Isabel had been acquitted just three weeks earlier by the Birmingham magistrates’ court along with father Sean Gough, a priest from Wolverhampton who had also prayed silently outside the same clinic, displaying a sign that read “Praying for Freedom of Speech.” From now on, British citizens will have to pay a “tax” if they want to pray in these “buffer zones.” Five U.N. Special Rapporteurs have expressed serious concerns that the bill diminishes human rights, including the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. Even Amnesty International has drawn comparisons to repressive policies in Russia and Belarus, though London claims to be against Moscow and Minsk, which it calls capitals of authoritarian and undemocratic regimes.
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