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Meet the pro-choice atheist skeptical about the UK's abortion ‘buffer zone’ law

Meet the pro-choice atheist skeptical about the UK's abortion ‘buffer zone’ law

If you’re a Mass-going Catholic, you probably feel disturbed by the idea of a law criminalizing peaceful prayer vigils outside abortion clinics.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, after all, says that “God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.”

But what if you don’t believe in God? Would you still find the idea troubling?

And what if, as well as being an atheist, you supported legal abortion, believing that women should have “maximum access” to the practice? Would you still have concerns about the proposed law?

For Claire Fox, the answer is “yes.”

Named a baroness in 2020, Fox is a member of the House of Lords, the upper house of the U.K. Parliament.

In recent months, she has been raising concerns about a push to curtail pro-life gatherings near abortion facilities nationwide through a draft law known as the Public Order Bill.

The U.K. government introduced the bill into Parliament in May 2022 to address disruptive tactics used by groups such as climate protesters. But pro-choice parliamentarians added a clause seeking to criminalize any “protest” near any abortion clinic nationwide, seemingly including silent prayer.

Clause 9, as it was known, won overwhelming support in the House of Commons, the lower house of the U.K. Parliament, in a free vote — meaning legislators were not whipped by their parties to vote for or against it.

Fox argued that Clause 9 would set a dangerous precedent. It was rewritten by its supporters, who presented a new amendment with a revised definition of the “offense of interference with access to or provision of abortion services.”

The bill — which now says that “influencing any person’s decision to access, provide or facilitate the provision of abortion services” within a “safe access zone” will be regarded as an offense — is now close to becoming law in England and Wales.

Fox is the founder and director of the Academy of Ideas, a London-based think tank, and describes herself as a “lefty protest type.” She once belonged to the U.K.’s Revolutionary Communist Party and was the publisher of the magazine LM (formerly Living Marxism). She stood in the 2019 European Parliament elections for the Brexit Party.

She spoke to The Pillar via Zoom about the Public Order Bill, the perils of poorly drafted legislation, and her advice for the pro-life movement.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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You wrote in The Spectator earlier this month that the new amendment on ‘buffer zones’ in the Public Order Bill is ‘much less illiberal’ than the previous clause.

But you also said there is a ‘weasel word’ in the amendment that makes you ‘very uncomfortable.’ What is it?

I objected to the word “influence.” I’d actually raised this before it came up in the House of Lords with various people who were proposing the amendment. My argument on this weasel word was that “influence” is a very important thing to be able to do in a democracy, to be able to influence people, and I didn’t feel happy about the law banning it, even in a restricted area, even in a restricted zone.

And so, consequently, I queried that. I made the point that, at any point, anyone can be influenced, because partly that’s what makes us change our minds on any range of things.

Just to be clear, I do not think it’s an appropriate place to start counseling women. I’m not very sympathetic to groups who stand outside abortion clinics and try to offer alternative counseling on the way in.

I actually think the vigils are a completely wrong-footed approach by the pro-life movement. Forget whether I believe in what they think or not — which I don’t — I still think that it’s a totally inappropriate thing to stand outside abortion clinics. I just don’t think it should be illegal. It’s a different point.

However, to use a word like “influence” in the law suggests there is a public space in which you’re basically saying that you’re not allowed to influence someone, and I felt that that was potentially insulting to any woman who was accessing abortion facilities, because they might or might not be influenced, but they should be free to be influenced.

I don’t think that those people should try and influence them there, then. I don’t think it’s a good thing to do, but I wanted to protect the notion of influence, and that was what I said.

Meet Fr. Sean Gough, the priest highlighting England’s abortion ‘censorship zones’

You said in the most recent Spectator article: ‘I do not want us to pass legislation that inadvertently undermines women’s agency or capacity to choose, in our enthusiasm to support laws presented as protecting women.’

Can you explain why women’s agency is an important consideration for you here?

Well, because part of the reason I’m pro-choice is because I believe in women’s agency, because I think that women should be able to decide what to do with their bodies. It’s called “the women’s right to choose movement” because you have a choice, and you choose whether you have an abortion or a termination or not.

It just seemed to me there was a danger of saying that if a woman chose alternatively, even at the last minute as they were accessing a clinic, that we could potentially be suggesting that they had no agency, and that the only reason they could possibly change their mind would be because they saw somebody standing outside an abortion clinic or got a leaflet. So I just wanted to protect that as an ideal at least.


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There’s a battle over what the proposed zones about abortion facilities should be called. Supporters have described them as ‘buffer zones’ and ‘safe access zones.’ Opponents have labeled them ‘censorship zones.’

What do you make of this debate?

I think the term “censorship zones” is just as unhelpful. It’s slightly misleading, actually. But then, “safe access zones” is misleading too, because it suggests that the “buffer zones” deny safe access in the very title that we’re using.

If I thought that any vigils, or anyone standing outside a medical facility, were denying safe access — that there was any threat to safety, or that people were denied access — I would be opposed to them completely. That would be, in my mind, intolerable. In some ways, that is where the law could be used, because nobody should be blocked from entering a medical facility. And if their safety is put at risk, then that should not be allowed. We’ve got plenty of public order legislation that would stop that occurring.

So the inference of the title “safe access zones” is that these gatherings stop access and threaten safety simultaneously. Whereas actually, in any of the debates that we had, there was no evidence given of that.

And when you said ‘Is there a threat to people’s safety?’ it ended up being a kind of psychological safety: It was distressing or it was unpleasant. By the way, I think it is distressing and unpleasant to have to walk past these people if you’re accessing a medical procedure. But I don’t think that the law should legislate against people’s distress or things being unpleasant, even if I think they’re distressing and unpleasant.

And so consequently, I think that that’s misleading, because what it does is it implies that standing there with opinions that are contrary to the people going and accessing terminations, or indeed just opinions that are going against abortion as a right, would somehow represent some threat to safety.

I think that that is quite dangerous because it basically puts opinions on trial. And I don’t think that’s appropriate.

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You’ve called for a review of activities outside abortion clinics to determine whether a new law was necessary in the first place. Why is that?

In the first debate in the House of Lords, which was quite heated and long, there were those of us who were saying, “Is there a need for a nationwide mandate?”

One of the issues here is that this is a law that will mandate nationwide that any facility that offers termination will have to have a 150-meter [almost 500ft] buffer zone, even if nobody’s ever protested outside it. I think it’s carving out public space in a way that's very dangerous.

It was argued against me that there was a massive escalation of these protests, that they were happening everywhere you looked, and we had to kind of preempt them growing. And partly the argument was that this is funded by American money. This is part of the culture wars and it’s post-Roe v. Wade, and abortion is going to be a big issue.

I was arguing back that there was a review in 2018 that said that a national law was not needed. The government’s own review said that the protests were pretty mild. I’d quote that, and the supporters of Clause 9 said, “That’s out of date, because of all these new factors.”

By the time we got to report stage, when we would vote, I decided that there was so much conflicting material. And if the 2018 review was out of date — and that was used to stop a national mandate in the past — maybe we should have another review. And so I supported the call for a review.

I would have liked the review to look at why [abortion clinic] staff who are going about doing their job should feel under pressure, and even see signs saying “murder” and so on. And maybe a review could make a particular recommendation for staff.

But the point about a review was that they would look dispassionately at what was going on, and therefore I felt that was the way forward. There was no support for that. I still think it was a real shame not to have that.

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Have you received a backlash from pro-choice parliamentarians and activists?

Not parliamentarians. Baroness Sugg, who led this in the House of Lords, has been very fair. She listened and Clause 9 was completely rewritten. There is no Clause 9 now. The amendment might not be what you want, but it’s just completely different.

Even though the end result is a nationwide mandate on buffer zones, the wording is much more mediated and moderate, and there’s no threat of prison, for example. The punishment is also a much lower level, which was one of the things I drew attention to the first time around.

Inevitably, there are arguments amongst myself and my pro-choice friends and colleagues, who think I’m being irrational or making too much of this. It’s an argument about whether this was something worth me fighting or whether I should have just looked the other way. I understand that they feel very strongly about it. They do feel genuinely that these are a nuisance and unpleasant, and should be dealt with.

Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) were introduced in the U.K. in 2014 to tackle ‘anti-social behavior.’ Local authorities began applying them to areas around abortion clinics.

What did you think of that development?

I had serious qualms about PSPOs. I don’t like PSPOs in general, which I feel that local authorities have used far too promiscuously to carve out areas of public space in a range of ways. They can be used to stop people busking. I feel as though they’re trying to sanitize public space in a way.

There’s a group called the Manifesto Club who campaign [against] the hyper-regulation of everyday life. They’ve done some fantastic work on PSPOs and how they’re used against everyone from dog walkers to people sitting and having a picnic.

Local authorities were given the power to bring in PSPOs, and some of them have gone completely over the top. I was worried about giving local authorities a kind of arbitrary power.

I argued against PSPOs in general and was no more convinced about the use of PSPOs when they started to be employed around abortion facilities. The funny thing about it is, I kept saying these PSPOs are local arbitrary law. You have to be really careful about that. If something’s not against the law, why should a local authority be able to make it almost illegal to do?

And my friends in the pro-choice lobby argued that PSPOs were necessary. Now they say PSPO are rubbish, that they don’t work and they’re really arbitrary. That’s really weird.

It’s a bit like Clause 9 getting dumped, because it shows you that when you argue for something that’s to be made a law, or a regulation that can have criminal outcomes, you have to be very careful.

Because PSPOs were what was being argued for. We’re now told PSPOs are terrible and we need to have this national mandate. But PSPOs were the choice of the pro-buffer zone movement in the past. So, again, surely a review is necessary if PSPOs are not appropriate if they’re arbitrary.

Can you speculate on the reasons why PSPOs are suddenly out of favor?

Because they’re quite hard to get, I think. Or partially because it’s a bit arbitrary: it depends on the council. Some councils will say: “There is nothing to see here and so we’re not going to bring in a PSPO.” And others will bring a PSPO.

The difficulty is whether there’s something to see there or not. That’s the whole contention: Is it something that we should be legislating on or ruling on in general? And I’ve got reservations about it. It’s as simple as that.

For all the reasons that I’ve said, I think you sometimes have to tolerate irritating people doing stupid things that I think are bonkers. But it’s an open argument. If a review were to indicate that there is a real problem, and go into detail about what the problems are around vigils outside abortion clinics, then I might change my mind.

There was so much conflicting information that I ended up thinking, what we really need is to know what’s going on. And the numbers that were being thrown around — you know, hundreds of thousands of women encountering this — I’d like to see a bit more detail and also what’s actually happening outside them.

I don't think people are acting in bad faith. I think there is a perception that things are becoming hairier. Probably people who work in these facilities have become fed up at this going on where they work, and so there’s been a kind of lobbying by staff, which I think is understandable. Partly that’s conflated with women accessing facilities rather than not accessing them.

One thing that did strike me — I don’t know whether this is a little bit glib but I thought there was some validity in it — which was that Lord Farmer made the point that in a period of social media, we don’t see lots of films of some of these accusations of terrible things that are happening. We’re hearing pretty lurid stories of people shouting “Murderer!” and being aggressive, and so on. But I haven’t seen them, I’ve just heard about them, and that’s just a bit weird.


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There have been a series of arrests for breaching the terms of PSPOs around abortion facilities. What do you make of that?

I don’t like the stunts of people standing outside silently praying. It’s a stupid way to behave. I think that it actually ironically weaponizes silent prayer.

I don’t think that the anti-buffer zone movement is doing itself any favors by saying, “Oh, look, here's a priest and he’s also been silently praying.” Don’t silently pray there, pray somewhere else. I understand that you’re trying to illustrate that the legislation can ban silent prayer, but once you’ve done it once, you don’t have to keep doing it. It’s annoying.

I want to make it clear that I think that both sides are in danger of overegging their case.

If there are people who want to pray outside an abortion clinic or to stand on vigil, I defend their right to do it. For those people who say that this is just over-politicized, I worry that the reactions on both sides confirm that.

There’s an inconsistency on both sides. The people who were up in arms about the government being draconian around protest did not argue on my side in relation to buffer zones. But it is also the case that the anti-abortion movement, which says it is pro-free speech and pro-right to protest, have said very little about the general Public Order Bill, which is full of some terrible things, and they’ve been more or less silent.

I have tried at least to be consistent about civil liberties, and there would be more credit given to both sides if they tried to be consistent across the piece based on principle, not on a partisan view on the issue of abortion.

You’ve critiqued the pro-life movement’s strategy. How do you think it can best make its voice heard in debates?

It’s got to win arguments. If it wants to have counseling for women prior to their decision to terminate, then they need to have high-profile counseling services available widely and advertise them, and tell people there is a choice.

Leaving it to outside an abortion clinic, talk about last minute… Talk to young women who are pregnant, if you think that they’re not getting a full array of options, do that.

And win arguments in the course of public debate and discussion about why you think abortion should be criminalized, if that’s what you think. These are things that I think you should do. I don’t think that standing outside abortion clinics is the way to go. It’s quite performative, to say the least.


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