Portsmouth council voted by 33-1 last week to seek a ban on pro-life vigils. Bishop Philip Egan, who took part in a vigil in the city just last month, offered a chilling assessment of the vote. “The council’s decision,” he said, “is yet another example of the ever more draconian restrictions being placed by our so-called liberal society on freedom of religious expression. With the current tides of regulation, it will become ever more difficult for Catholics to live out and witness to their faith.”
Portsmouth is the second council to favour a ban on the small, peaceful prayer vigils that take place outside abortion clinics up and down the country. The first was Ealing in west London, which is now considering “a range of measures” against pro-lifers. They include public space protection orders (PSPOs): time-limited ordinances normally reserved for menaces such as street drinking.
But abortion supporters are already planning to go further. Ealing MP Rupa Huq has written to Home Secretary Amber Rudd demanding “buffer zones” outside clinics nationwide on the spurious grounds that pro-lifers are “harassing” women. The letter was signed by 113 MPs, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Lib Dem leader Vince Cable. London mayor Sadiq Khan has also expressed his support.
An outright ban on pro-life witness outside clinics is well within the realm of possibility. In Canada, the province of Ontario has passed just such a law. Anyone who violates the “safe zones” (by, for example, advising a woman not to have an abortion within 50 metres of a clinic) faces six months in jail and a fine of up to $5,000 (£3,000).
In Britain, the Government is weak and could be casting around for a social issue on which it can appear “progressive”. Rudd may conclude that “buffer zones” is a relatively painless way for the Government to win praise from Britain’s otherwise hostile political and media establishments.
We must ensure that such a path would not be cost-free. We should let our MPs know that we expect them to uphold the fundamental human rights of freedom of expression and assembly. If they support “buffer zones”, then it will be difficult to vote for them at the next election.
Meanwhile, we should each consider taking part in our nearest pro-life vigil. These prayerful gatherings are often sparsely attended. By fortifying their ranks we will be sending a message to the Government, MPs and councils.
Vigil organisers should take heart. Although they are few, they have shaken a shadowy multi-million pound industry and its parliamentary supporters. Their courageous witness calls to mind the Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which Martin Luther King spoke of how peaceful direct action can bring tensions that have long simmered beneath society to the surface. “I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension’,” he wrote. “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”
Pro-life vigils help our society to grow in awareness of the unborn child’s humanity. No wonder they are considered a threat by an industry based on the denial of that fact. Suppressing vigils is an attempt to snuff out the truth about abortion. It must not succeed.
One resolution stands out among those released by the bishops of England and Wales after their plenary meeting in Leeds last week. It is a statement in which the bishops alert us to the dangers posed to children by the internet.
Given that we are all concerned about health and safety, it is surprising that we do not worry more about the online health and safety of the young. The bishops say: “We now see so many young people acknowledging that they are addicted to its use and to the pornography which is so readily available there. The internet has also become a major means of the abuse of children, of
blackmail and new forms of degrading slavery.”
So what is the solution? Here the Church has a huge role to play. First of all, Catholic schools need to educate children about the challenges and dangers that they will encounter through the internet. They are doing this already, but more needs to be done.
Secondly, this danger needs to be flagged up in sermons. Difficult as it is to do so, priests need to talk about pornography from the pulpit, and in a way that is not coded, but which can be understood by all who are affected by it. Above all parents need to be encouraged to speak to their children about the dangers they face.
The bishops also make clear that internet providers have a responsibility they should not shirk. They write: “We challenge internet providers to take account of their responsibilities and to invest in measures to limit and control the deeply damaging ways in which the internet is used.” It is distressing, though not surprising, that so many respected platforms seem scarcely troubled by the way they are used by pornographers, trolls, people trying to entrap children and merchants of hate. This needs to change.
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