Speaking on behalf of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, Bishop John Sherrington, Lead Bishop for Life Issues, has reaffirmed a resolution passed by the Bishops at their November 2022 plenary highlighting concerns with current and proposed legislation on the issue of ‘Buffer Zones’ around abortion clinics.
On 30 January the Government’s Public Order Bill will be entering the report stage in the House of Lords. Clause 9, which was an amendment to the Bill in the House of Commons last autumn, introduces the ‘offence of interference with access to or provision of abortion services’.
This clause will criminalise a range of activities within a 150m radius of an abortion service, under the broad premise of ‘interference’. Problematic for freedom of religion, expression, and association, are many of the terms. These include: ‘seeks to influence’, ‘persistently, continuously or repeatedly occupies,’, ‘advises or persuades, attempts to advise or persuade, or otherwise expresses opinion’.
Clause 9 could extend trends seen at a local level, where Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) in Bournemouth and Birmingham have set a dangerous precedent and banned, amongst other activities, prayer and the recitation of Scripture. Recent police actions have further exacerbated the concerns of Catholic bishops, and many others, regarding the broad legislative proposal of Clause 9 and its implications for freedom of religion, belief, expression, and association.
The interpretation of terms such as ‘seeks to influence’ could make prayer, certain types of thought, and even mere presence a criminal offence in a public place. There is a risk, despite any other intent, that existing and proposed measures constitute discrimination and disproportionately have an impact on people of religious faith. Its implications extend beyond the perimeters of an abortion service and raise questions about the state’s powers in relation to the individual in a free society, both those with faith and those without.
All harassment and intimidation of women is to be condemned. Moreover, as accepted in a 2018 Home Office Review, there are already laws and mechanisms in place to protect women from such unacceptable behaviour and so render this Clause unnecessary and excessive.
The Catholic bishops, and many others, hold religious liberty to be essential for the flourishing and the realisation of the dignity of every human person and recognise it as a foundational freedom of any free and democratic society.
Bishop John Sherrington
Lead Bishop for Life Issues