Campaigners have raised concerns that freedom of thought is being criminalised after MPs voted against an amendment to protect silent prayer and consensual conversations around abortion clinics. The House of Commons passed a clause of the Public Order Bill which makes it illegal to influence a person using abortion services within a 150m “buffer zone” of any facility in England and Wales. The amendment proposed to protect peaceful prayer and conversations was lost by 116 in favour to 299 against. Lois McLatchie from the Christian advocacy group ADF UK said the move threatens Christian practices and freedom of thought. “This is the first time that Parliament has voted to introduce in modern British history ‘thought crime’. “Nobody should be arrested, going to court and facing these measures simply for holding a peaceful silent prayer in their own mind.”
The censorship zones are intended to prevent the harassment of women using abortion services, but McLatchie says this new legislation removes “valid choices” for those in crisis pregnancies and is “devastating” for women and Christians. “We’ve legislated much further than what was campaigned for, we’ve gone much further than banning harassment and now banned a leaflet offering help. “A lot of people have given their testimonies to say that they were offered help outside an abortion facility, and it really helped them to make their informed decision. To decide ‘I would like to continue my pregnancy’, that’s a valid choice for a woman to make.” Speaking at the tabled debate, MP Andrew Lewer raised similar concerns that the clause “leads us into the territory of thought crimes and creates unprecedented interference with the rights to freedom of speech and thought in the UK that would not be out of place in a dystopian novel.
“The zones would be the only place in the UK where consensual communication is banned by the state,” Lewer added. Christian MP, Sir Desmond Swayne warned that the legislation that criminalises silent prayer sends us into “Orwellian territory” as he referenced a woman that was arrested and detained twice for silently praying near an abortion facility in Birmingham. A father was similarly fined in Bournemouth for silent prayer outside an abortion clinic after policed questioned him about what he was praying about in his head. “This points the way to a world where freedom from offence supersedes freedom of speech and religious belief. We can now impose criminal penalties for silent thought,” Lewer said. Labour MP, Stella Creasy said a woman’s right to privacy should be protected: She says protesters praying inside the new buffer zones are not respecting “the rights for women to make their choice in peace” and are there “to intimidate a very difficult decision”.
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