Don’t muzzle peaceful pro-life outreach, UK bishop says

Proposals to bar pro-life demonstrations and outreach with a legal ‘buffer zone’ outside abortion clinics drew objections from a leading U.K. bishop who stressed the legitimacy of their cause.

“There are members of the public, often associated with churches, who gather peacefully to pray outside abortion clinics and witness to the good of human life in a dignified way,” Bishop John Sherrington said Feb. 16.

“They do so because of their fundamental belief in the protection of unborn life and the good of the mother.”

Bishop Sherrington, an auxiliary bishop of the Westminster archdiocese, is responsible for the Day for Life, when the local Catholic Church dedicates a day to raising awareness about the value of human life at every stage from conception to natural death. In England and Wales, the 2018 observance falls on Sunday, June 17.

The bishop’s remarks were submitted to a British government review of abortion clinic protests as parliament and several localities consider “buffer zones.” Possible proposals could bar the display of images deemed distressing and the use of loudspeakers, but also bar congregating in large groups and approaching women going into clinics.

In 2017, Labour Party M.P. Rupa Huq organized a cross-party letter supporting buffer zones that drew support from 113 M.P.s, including Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Sky News reports.

Bishop Sherrington was critical of the proposal.

“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,” he said.

“The offering of leaflets is part of helping to inform women who might not have had impartial information before,” he said. “There are also those who offer practical alternatives and assistance if a woman wants to make a different choice.”

Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced the Home Office review in November 2017. It sought views about “alleged harassment and intimidating behavior near abortion clinics in England and Wales.”

“While everyone has a right to peaceful protest, this review is about ensuring the police, healthcare providers and local authorities have the right powers to protect women making these tough decisions,” Rudd said in a Nov. 26 announcement. “The decision to have an abortion is already an incredibly personal one, without women being further pressured by aggressive protesters.”

The review would consider comparisons to how demonstrations are treated in Australia, France and the U.S. It would assess several factors: the scale, frequency and nature of the protests; laws against harassment and intimidation; and the public’s right to lawful, peaceful protest.

Bishop Sherrington backed protest, rightly understood.

“In a democratic society the freedom to protest and express one’s opinion is always to be considered in relation to the common good,” he said. “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.”

Current legislation already provides the means to deal with harmful or threatening behavior, he said.

The comment period for the review ends Feb. 19.

In December, John Hansen-Brevetti, clinical operations manager at the Marie Stopes abortion clinic in Ealing, told a House of Commons’ Home Affairs committee that up to 40 protesters at a time have gathered outside the clinic, Sky News reports. He charged that they have physically grabbed or blocked women or have been “using other means of intimidation.”

However, Antonia Tully, director of campaigns at the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said that the protests are “peaceful, prayerful people, standing near abortion facilities, offering women the help that they are simply not getting anywhere else.”

Ahead of a January meeting of Ealing Council, Tully said that “peaceful, prayerful pro-life vigils must continue to offer help to desperate women.”