By Kevin J. Jones
A Northern Ireland law to ban pro-life advocacy near abortion providers, including advocacy of abortion alternatives, is “justifiable” and compatible with the rights of people who want to express their opposition to abortion, the U.K. Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday.
The law prohibits “direct” and “indirect” pro-life “influence,” broadly defined, within 100 meters (about 328 feet) of an abortion provider. The designated areas have been called “censorship zones” by critics of the law, who include the legal group ADF UK.
“We are of course disappointed to see today’s ruling from the Supreme Court, which fails to protect the basic freedoms to pray or to offer help to women who may want to know about practical support available to avoid abortion,” Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, said Dec. 7.
“Peaceful presence, mere conversation, quiet or silent prayer — these activities should never be criminalized in a democratic society like the U.K.,” he said.
The Northern Ireland pro-life group Precious Life voiced stronger criticism, calling the decision “a travesty of justice.”
“The judges in the Supreme Court ruled this is appropriate and justifiable, even though it breaches rights of freedom of speech and assembly protected by the European Convention on Human Rights,” the group said Wednesday.
“Our work to protect mothers and babies from abortion has always been peaceful and legal. We will use innovative and creative new methods to continue offering help and support to women outside abortion centers,” the group said.
The ruling concerned a query regarding the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Northern Ireland Bill, which passed in March. Prohibited activities near abortion providers include quiet or silent prayer as well as the distribution of leaflets that offer women alternatives to abortion.
Northern Ireland’s attorney general, Dame Brenda King, had referred the bill to the U.K. Supreme Court out of concern that it was incompatible with fundamental freedoms enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.
Abortion critics may protest anywhere outside of the designated zones, the court noted. Conviction under the law will not “interfere disproportionately with a protestor’s rights.” The context is “highly sensitive” and there is “particular importance” to protecting “the private lives and autonomy of women,” the court’s decision summary said.
“(W)omen who wish to access lawful abortion services have a reasonable expectation of being able to do so without being confronted by protest activity designed to challenge and diminish their autonomy and undermine their resolve,” the court said. Women and abortion provider staff are “a captive audience who are compelled to witness anti–abortion activity that is unwelcome and intrusive.”
The court’s explanation for the ruling also cited the bill’s stated aim of implementing obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Igunnubole objected that the law’s criminalization of “influencing” is “vague” and “uncertain” and “reduces the threshold of criminality to an impermissibly low level.”
“Northern Ireland’s broadly drafted law hands arbitrary power to police officers, with the inevitable consequence being the unjust arrest and prosecution of those expressing pro-life views, even though such views are protected under domestic and international human rights law,” he added.
Another critic of the law is Alina Dulgheriu. She changed her mind about having an abortion because pro-life advocates at the doors of an abortion clinic offered to help her. She now speaks on behalf of the pro-life group Be Here for Me.
“What kind of society withholds help from vulnerable women?” Dulgheriu asked. “I didn’t want an abortion but I was abandoned by my partner, my friends, and society. My financial situation at the time would have made raising a child very challenging.”
“Thanks to the help I was offered by a group outside of a clinic before my appointment, my daughter is here today,” she said. “My experience is typical of hundreds of others. Refusing charitable volunteers from offering much-needed services and resources for women in my situation is wrong. Let them help.”
For its part, Precious Life said it “will not be deterred by this court ruling.”
“Our legal team is now working on how this ruling can be appealed and challenged in the European Court of Human Rights,” the group said. “Meanwhile, we will redouble our efforts in our public awareness campaigns to expose the horrific reality of what abortion does to an innocent baby in the womb.”
“In a humane society, the safest place for a baby should be their mother’s womb. Precious Life will work to create ‘safe zones’ for all unborn babies and their mothers throughout Northern Ireland.”
Lois McLatchie, communications officer for ADF UK, cited a 2018 Home Office review of the work of pro-life advocates outside abortion clinics. The most common pro-life efforts include quiet or silent prayer or offering leaflets about alternatives to abortion and charitable support for women. The review found that instances of harassment outside abortion clinics are “rare” and police already have powers to stop it.
“Censorship zones go much further. They introduce a disproportionate and unjustified blanket ban on all pro-life activity, including offering meaningful charitable help and support to women where they need it most,” McLatchie said. “Authorities do not hold a right to silence the public expression of a viewpoint with which they simply disagree.”
In addition to the Northern Ireland law, several U.K. town councils have passed similar laws.
Observers expect the decision of the Supreme Court will likely influence the direction of similar legislation in Scotland, England, and Wales.
Parliamentarians in England and Wales have also conveyed concern about the direction of religious freedom within their jurisdiction as the Public Order Bill makes its way through Parliament.
Clause 9 of the bill proposes to institute “buffer zones” around abortion clinics nationwide, which campaigners argue would have a detrimental impact on outreach for women facing crisis pregnancies while raising fundamental questions concerning freedom of religion and expression. The clause faced notable scrutiny in the House of Lords on Nov. 22 as peers across the political spectrum expressed their unease with the introduction of buffer zones.
“Westminster’s proposal to ban such activities is much further reaching than Northern Ireland’s,” Igunnubole commented. He said it would ban “informing,” “advising,” “persuading,” or even “occupying space” or “expressing opinion” with a penalty of up to two years in prison.
“This is clearly grossly disproportionate. Nobody should be censored for simply holding pro-life beliefs,” he said.