Pro-life group sues UK city for prohibiting prayer outside abortion clinic: ‘Targeted clampdown’

An activist holds a rosary while rallying against abortion in Los Angeles, California, September 29, 2015.
An activist holds a rosary while rallying against abortion in Los Angeles, California, September 29, 2015. | REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

A pro-life group is suing a city in the United Kingdom over a recently passed order that activists say restricts their ability to protest and pray outside a local abortion clinic.

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, 45, head of the group 40 Days for Life Birmingham, has filed a demand for a statutory review of Birmingham's Public Spaces Protection Order.

According to the Christian Legal Centre, the legal nonprofit representing Vaughn-Spruce, the order unlawfully prohibits 40 Days for Life from praying outside of the British Pregnancy Advisory Group’s Robert Clinic in the Birmingham ward of King's Norton.

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Since January 2020, volunteers from the Birmingham affiliate of the international pro-life group have demonstrated, prayed and offered information on abortion alternatives to women outside the clinic. 

In a statement, CLC argues that the order is a "targeted clampdown on the 40 Days' activities" even though the pro-life group has not engaged in any criminal behavior. Violation of the PSPO is punishable by up to six months in prison, CLC reports. 

The group contends that PSPO's are typically used to bar anti-social behavior like drug and alcohol abuse and dangerous dogs.

"The buffer zone, however, has now essentially criminalized the group's ministry by prohibiting any discussion of abortion within the area," CLC stressed in a statement. "This includes prayer, counselling and providing information and support available to women in crisis pregnancies. Using the word 'baby' or 'mum' is also now an offence."

The group's lawyers plan to argue that the order violates various articles of the European Convention on Human Rights and that the West Midlands Police's chief constable was not "properly consulted over the proposals."

"Through this action, I am not asking for anyone to agree with what 40 Days believes; others have the right to disagree. However, I am asking for justice to be upheld despite our differences in belief," Vaughan-Spruce said in a statement.

“40 Days has been portrayed as a group of judgmental, aggressive vigilantes, whereas in fact we have been the consistent victims of anti-social behaviour from residents and members of the public."

Enacted in September, the Birmingham City Council passed the order in response to claims of a rise in anti-social activities outside the King's Norton abortion clinic since 2018.

During the debate over the order, local officials ultimately decided not to extend the buffer zone to include a nearby Catholic Church or schools in the neighborhood as initially proposed. 

Despite the order, protests have resumed near the abortion clinic on the edge of the buffer zone. Some local residents have called for the order to be extended beyond its current borders, claiming 40 Days for Life protests in their neighborhood have led to heated arguments and prompted police to be called. 

"We were concerned at the outset that the boundary of the buffer zone would not be sufficient and would be too great a temptation for the protesters to resist," said one resident to Birmingham Live.

"The protest caused regular disputes and arguments outside the clinic; this is not going to be any different. We are calling on the council to extend the Buffer Zone further as this is causing distress and tension."

The litigation comes as Parliament is debating a measure that would create buffer zones around all abortion clinics in England and Wales. The measure still has several stages to clear, including a vote in the House of Lords.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a pro-life group's request to hear a challenge to a Pennsylvania city law that creates a "buffer zone" around abortion clinic entrances.

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