The financial interests threatening free speech in the UK

[Elizabeth Howard] “Be Here For Me”: this is the name of a new campaign set up to oppose so-called “buffer zones” outside abortion centres.

Several local councils have recently resolved to bring in Public Space Protection Orders, or PSPOs, around abortion facilities. Ealing Council was the first to vote on the issue, and it has been followed by Lambeth, Manchester, Richmond, Southwark and Portsmouth, among others. Lambeth has recently concluded its consultation period on the proposed PSPO; Ealing’s consultation period lasts until Monday 26 March.

PSPOs are essentially like Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) for a public space. They have typically been used to address local problems like street drinking, begging or dog fouling, although the looseness of the legislation introducing them, and the vagueness of many PSPOs themselves, have been widely criticised by civil liberties campaigners like Liberty and the Manifesto Club.

What are the anti-social behaviours which need to be addressed around abortion centres? During its deliberations, Ealing council heard lurid allegations from a local protest group, Sister Supporter, of women being shouted at, called “murderer”, grabbed, and photographed as they entered the Marie Stopes (MSI) centre in Ealing. Yet none of this behaviour has ever been backed up by video evidence, either from MSI’s own CCTV cameras or from the pro-choice campaigners who now mount a twice-weekly counter-protest outside the MSI facility.

Indeed, local pro-lifers strongly suspect that some of the behaviour ascribed to them was in fact carried out by pro-choice protestors; women entering the clinic may not know who is saying what as they go in. For example, the MSI log records an incident where a woman reported being told “Don’t do it” as she entered the building. On that day, pro-lifers were prevented from handing a woman a leaflet by pro-choicers shouting “Don’t take it!”

In a separate incident, a Nottingham hospital apologised to a local pro-life group after telling them to remove a banner outside the hospital which was causing distress to women seeking an abortion. The banner read “NOT YOUR BODY, NOT YOUR CHOICE” and was in fact placed there by a pro-choice group, and aimed at the pro-life witness, not at people attending the hospital.

Pro-life groups such as the Good Counsel Network hold vigils outside abortion centres because they find that it is only there that they can reach women in crisis pregnancies who would like to take up their offer of help. Some of the women attending abortion facilities do not, in fact, want to have an abortion, but feel that they have no choice because of their circumstances, or pressure from their partner or family. The Good Counsel Network offers practical help to women in order to help them keep their babies. Hundreds of women have accepted their help over the years, and these are the women who are at the centre of the Be Here For Me campaign.

In addition to local measures, there is a national campaign underway to introduce “buffer zones” around abortion facilities. Both Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, abortion providers which carry out the majority of NHS-funded abortions, have urged the government to ban pro-life witness round abortion facilities. Be Here For Me argues that these proposed zones should rather be called censorship zones, since they seek to shut down peaceful, prayerful witness and outreach in these areas.

Sir Edward Leigh MP has shared the story of a woman who accepted the offer of help from pro-lifers. She wrote:

“The potential introduction of buffer zones is a really bad idea because women like me, what would they do then? You know, not every woman that walks into those clinics actually wants to go through with the termination. There’s immense pressure, maybe they don’t have financial means to support themselves or their baby, or they feel like there’s no alternatives. These people offer alternatives.

I had my baby who is now three and a half years old. She’s an amazing, perfect little girl and the love of my life. I want MPs here today calling to introduce buffer zones to realise, that she would not be alive today, if they had their way.”

Bishop John Sherrington has spoken of his opposition to buffer zones, warning that banning pro-life vigils would threaten civil liberties. “In a democratic society the freedom to protest and express one’s opinion is always to be considered in relation to the common good. It should not be necessary to limit the freedom of individuals or groups to express opinions except when they could cause grave harm to others or a threat to public order. There are already proportionate means in current legislation to deal with these situations.

“A blanket introduction of ‘buffer zones’ carries with it the danger of both denying freedom of expression and fostering intolerance towards legitimate opinions which promote the common good.”

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