Are we prepared to sacrifice free expression?What is at stake in the buffer zone debate? | Isabel Vaughan-Spruce | The Critic Magazine
Birmingham City Council has recently brought in a PSPO (Public Space Protection Order) around the Robert Abortion Centre in Kings Norton, Birmingham. This form of a buffer zone not only bans harassment, intimidation or offensive posters but also, concerningly, silent prayer, the use of the words “mum” or “baby”, the handing out of leaflets of help and even the mere presence of those who oppose abortion or want to offer alternatives to it.
I run the pro-life campaign “40 Days for Life Birmingham” which has helped well over 100 women in Birmingham to find alternatives to abortion. These are women who were at one point scheduled to have an abortion, sometimes even having had the first set of abortion pills but on being presented with an alternative they chose to continue their pregnancy.
40 Days for Life Birmingham have been supported by the Christian Legal Centre to take up a legal challenge to the imposition of this PSPO. My concern is that the PSPO has redefined the meaning of words to suit individual’s own agenda. As it stands the offer of a leaflet of help is now branded as “harassment”, prayer is branded as “protest” and mere presence is said to be “intimidation”.
This PSPO … prevents us from being there for women
For over 10 years, during the period of Lent and again in Autumn, we have been peacefully praying in groups of 2 or 3 outside an abortion centre in Birmingham and offering leaflets of help to those considering abortion. We have no posters outside the abortion centre but simply offer a leaflet which has been checked by a doctor to confirm it is factually correct. Every volunteer who joins us must first sign a statement of peace to declare that they agree to behave peacefully and lovingly. Many of our volunteers have themselves had abortions or even multiple abortions and want to ensure that no woman feels the pressure that they did to abort and really does have an alternative if this is their wish. This PSPO in Birmingham prevents us from being there for women at the hour when they need us the most.
The first PSPO brought around a UK abortion centre was in Ealing, London, in 2018, but other councils have followed suit, most recently Birmingham and Bournemouth. In Bournemouth making religious gestures like “the sign of the cross” are also banned prompting concerns amongst many Christians. It seems that there is no objective measure of offence, harassment or intimidation required, or any evidence needed to show how pro-life volunteers are causing anti-social behaviour? In actual fact, the evidence from 40 Days for Life Birmingham shows pro-life volunteers themselves being physically abused, threatened and sworn at by locals (not by those using the abortion centre) resulting in the police having to get involved and one man having to do “restorative justice” i.e. write a letter of apology to the pro-life volunteer for the physical assault.
A 2022 poll commissioned by the BBC, an organisation not usually accused of having a pro-life bias, showed that 15 per cent of women aged 18 – 44 said they had felt under pressure to abort against their will. 2021 had the highest abortion figures ever and yet rather than offering women more opportunities to look at alternatives we see measures taken to clamp down on those who help women in some of the most challenging situations. My organisation has helped women and couples with accommodation, counselling, child care, financial support, baby goods, private medical care as well as friendship. Many of these women had already had their initial abortion appointment but clearly had not been presented with suitable alternatives there. Some of these women and couples have come forward to help challenge the PSPO in Birmingham as they are bothered about how our organisation has been represented.
As the move to implement national buffer zones grows stronger those who purport to believe in real choice need to take the opportunity to speak out. This question isn’t “Where do people stand on the issue of abortion?” but rather “Are we prepared to sacrifice free speech and freedom of religion on the altar of our own ideology?”