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Abortion clinic buffer zones would be ‘infringement of free speech’

A pro-life vigil in Bedford Square, central London

A leading pro-life activist has criticised a campaign by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) for the introduction of a law banning protesters outside its clinics.

BPAS, which carries out 55,000 abortions every year, wants to introduce “bubble zones”, as have been introduced in Tasmania and parts of Canada. The Back Off campaign is also supported by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Rape Crisis England and Wales and the Royal College of Midwives.

Robert Colquhoun of 40 Days for Life denied that prayer vigils outside abortion clinics were causing “harassment and distress”. He said: “We’ve been organising prayer vigils since 2010 – legal and peaceful vigils– simply to pray and to offer alternatives through pavement counselling. We’ve seen hundreds of women in London choose life because of pavement counselling, and this has helped people in need.”

He said that the 1986 Public Order Act already makes it an offence to purposefully cause distress and that they are very much within the law, although staff at the BPAS clinic in Bedford Square had complained to police “about 100 times” and pro-lifers did face “aggression” across the country.

The US Supreme Court recently struck down a Massachusetts law creating “bubble zones”, but such freedom of speech protections might not exist in Britain.

Much of the opposition here is focussed on the use of graphic imagery by groups such as Abort67. Mr Colquhoun said: “We don’t officially have a policy on graphic imagery, we simply organise campaigns based on prayer. They believe social reform happens through graphic imagery, such as with slavery, and that it can really change public opinion. I think their campaigns really work with some people, and some dislike it a lot. It’s something that causes division among the pro-life community, some say you’ll harden peoples heart by coming across as the Westboro Baptist Church, by having that approach.”

He added that in previous campaigns where they were barred from approaching within two or three yards of a clinic, such as in Stratford, “it does make it difficult” to convince women to choose life; in their most recent Lent campaign, he said, 20 women changed their minds.

“It’s an enfringement of free speech. We want an honest and open debate about abortion and this would open people’s eyes.”

Peter D Williams, executive officer of campaign group Right to Life, defended pro-life groups’ “legal right to public protest”.

“There are forms of protest (offering help and information) outside abortion facilities that we believe are helpful, and others (such as showing graphic abortion images) that we believe may prove themselves counter-productive,” he said.

“Whichever form they take however, such vigils have as much legal right to public protest as any other cause. Limiting this right in a public space as BPAS is calling for Government to do, apparently according solely to their subjective effects on some individuals, would be an illiberal and speech-chilling attempt by the abortion lobby to restrict their opponents.

“Regardless of what we think of the prudence or wisdom of individual protests or protestors, all people of good will should zealously guard our freedoms to act and speak in the public square.”