A pro-life group has launched legal action against Birmingham City Council over the implementation of a "buffer zone" they say makes it illegal to peacefully pray outside an abortion clinic in the city.
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, 45, who is the leader of the group 40 Days for Life Birmingham, will pursue a statutory review of the council’s decision to put in place a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) in September 2022 near the Robert Clinic in Kings Norton, Birmingham.
Normally used for substance abuse and criminality issues, PSPOs create buffer zones, a tool that enables local authorities to prevent certain anti-social activities from taking place in an area.
A “buffer zone” means an area within a boundary of 150 metres from any part of an abortion clinic or any access point to any building or site that contains an abortion clinic. Breaking a PSPO can lead to a fixed penalty notice or prosecution.
The Robert Clinic is run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the leading provider of abortion services in the UK with over 40 abortion clinics and sexual health centres in England, Wales, and Scotland.
The legal team is challenging the validity of the PSPO, with lawyers "arguing that the council has exceeded its powers."
They will argue that the council did not have the power to draw up the PSPO because officials "wrongly sought to prohibit peaceful and lawful behaviour which cannot properly be characterised as “anti-social”, and for which there is no evidence."
Lawyers will also argue that the PSPO is "disproportionate" and interferes with Vaughan-Spruce’s human rights under articles 9 (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion) 10 (freedom of expression) and 11 (freedom of assembly and association) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
'Twisted'Vaughan-Spruce told The Epoch Times that what her group does has been "twisted."
She said that over 100 women have accepted their help. Their campaigns last for 40 consecutive days and are held twice a year, once in the spring and once in the autumn. Volunteers are present during these times in groups of two to four at a time. The group claims that volunteers hold no posters, banners, or placards and never use megaphones.
She added that the council has never shown them evidence that they have been "anti-social or criminal."
"There's a real need to highlight what's happening," she said.
"The definition of words has been twisted so that the offer of a leaflet is now harassment, prayer is protest, presence is intimidation. There has to be some objective measure of what really is offence, harassment, and intimidation. Or we just end up silencing anyone who has a conflicting ideology to our own," she said.
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said in a statement, “The effect of the PSPO is to criminalise 40 Days’ activities in Birmingham and to create an area where no discussion of abortion or even prayer relating to abortion, is permitted."
A Birmingham City Council spokeswoman told The Epoch Times by email: “We have received a legal challenge to the Public Space Protection Order introduced in a defined area around Robert Clinic in Station Road, Kings Norton."
Buffer Zones LawIn October, UK MPs supported proposals to make anti-abortion protests and vigils around clinics a criminal offence in England and Wales, going beyond PSPOs.
An amendment to the Public Order Bill to introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics has been backed by a cross-party group of MPs.
The Conservative government’s bill was designed to strengthen police powers against disruptive tactics by climate activists such as Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, and Insulate Britain.
If passed, anyone within the buffer zone seeking to influence a woman’s decision could face criminal charges and up to six months in jail for a first offence, or two years for further offences.
At the time, Katherine O’Brien, associate director of communications and campaigns at BPAS, told The Epoch Times by email that the existing laws “do not deal with anti-abortion clinic protests effectively, unfortunately.”
O’Brien said that PSPOs are not a permanent solution.
“They create a postcode lottery where many other women are unable to access care without harassment. They are expensive to introduce and uphold in court, making councils less likely to risk their introduction," she said.