Bishop John Sherrington, an auxiliary bishop of Westminster Diocese, has spoken in defence of pro-life vigils, as a campaign to prevent them gathers momentum.
Bishop Sherrington said in a statement that pro-life vigils were motivated by a “fundamental belief in the protection of unborn life and the good of the mother”, and that they offered “practical alternatives and assistance if a woman wants to make a different choice”.
Several local councils have passed motions to introduce “buffer zones” outside abortion clinics, although they have not yet decided how to implement them. The government has launched a consultation on “alleged harassment and intimidating behaviour” outside abortion clinics.
The organisers of pro-life prayer vigils say that the evidence is lacking. Clare McCullough of Good Counsel Network said that the vigils at the Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing, where the local council wants to impose a ban, had produced “not a scrap of evidence of any such behaviour”, despite “eighteen months of constant filming and recording by the ‘counter-protest’ group”.
The vigils were able to help women in vulnerable situations, McCullough said. “Rare is the woman who enters the abortion centre without feeling internally knocked out of kilter to say the least, but add to that the mixture of abused, trafficked, abandoned, young women who wash up on the shore of Marie Stopes or BPAS each day and we are often seeing women who are shell-shocked or verging on a breakdown.
“Sometimes a woman seeks us out because she is desperate or afraid. But more often as one of us approaches her to offer a leaflet she may initially look uninterested, but then suddenly realise that we are claiming to offer an alternative.”
Lambeth Council are considering a ban on “behaviour that intimidates or seeks to dissuade service users from accessing health services in Lambeth or otherwise causes, or is likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to such persons”.
McCullough said that, if this were implemented, it could have unintended consequences. “Technically in their buffer zone it would be OK for, say, a violent boyfriend to attempt to persuade a woman to abort (so long as it was done in a not too distressing manner), but it would be a crime for that same woman’s mum to say ‘Don’t listen to him love, I’ll support you.'”
McCullough also said that over 1,000 women who have taken up offers of support and changed their minds at our vigils.”
In his statement, Bishop Sherrington warned that banning the 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.”
The consultation closes on Monday 19 February.