A Step Too Far
A number of weeks ago, I was walking past one of the major hospitals in Glasgow. Standing outside the perimeter wall were a number of women who were silently protesting against abortion. One or two of them were quietly praying the Rosary, while a couple held up placards saying what they were doing and why. When the women are approached, they are very happy to be engaged in conversation and will very politely explain the purpose of their actions. Similar silent protests are in place outside at least one other very large hospital in Glasgow. There is no aggression, no hostility, no shouting – they are simply, quietly there.
At the present time, the Scottish Government have a working group to examine “safe access zones around healthcare facilities”. As a result of the work of this group., they have stated their intention to introduce legislation to create protected “buffer zones” around places where abortions are carried out; this would have the effect of making it illegal to protest or to pray within those designated areas.
In England and Wales, Clause 10 of the new Public Order Bill seeks to achieve much the same thing, criminalising various activities within a 150 metre radius of any health facility where abortions are performed. Notably, politicians struck down an amendment which would have exempted prayer within those zones.
I have checked the website of the Catholic bishops of Scotland but there does not seem to be anything there regarding this plan – there are presently no statements that I can see, and searching for either ‘abortion’ or ‘buffer zones’ returns no results.
The bishops of England and Wales, on the other hand, have released a statement “reiterating concerns it will lead to the curtailment of freedom of speech for people of faith.” Bishop John Sherrington, lead bishop for Life Issues, commented on what activities might suddenly become illegal as a result –
“These could very easily include many things that should never be criminalised such as prayer, thought, peaceful presence, consensual communication and practical support if they are deemed to influence or interfere with access to the clinic. Politicians went so far as to vote down an amendment which would have protected silent prayer and consensual communication in such spaces, and that would have initiated a review into whether such legislation was needed.”
Now, regardless of what one thinks about the issue of abortion per se, the provision to criminalise silent prayer dependent upon where it is offered, should be of concern to all people of faith, as well as to those of no faith. This is, as the bishops of England and Wales note, “a step too far”.
Over the last few days, I have read of several instances where various people – one a Catholic priest, others lay people – were stopped and arrested by police within these ‘buffer zones’ after being asked what they were doing and offering the answer “praying”.
The law has no place criminalising what takes place within the internal forum. To think, to believe, to pray are NOT illegal activities and should not be made so in any democratic society.
The subject of abortion, and the associated issue of protest in the near vicinity of abortion facilities, is certainly a very emotive one, and one which results in a lot of heat but generally not very much light. In large part, the issue has been enormously politicised – especially in the United States, thanks to various (often ultra-Conservative and very well funded) groups and to the determination of the American bishops that it is “the pre-eminent issue”, to the extent that all other similar issues are relegated to the sidelines or ignored or even rejected outright. Further, to declare oneself to be ‘pro-life’ in regard to unborn children in the womb while at the same time refusing to extend that consideration to various forms of life outwith the womb, seems to me to be a glaring contradiction. There are much wider associated issues which lead to the decision to have an abortion – and unless these are recognised and worked on, then all the protests in the world will change nothing.
Be that as it may, the purpose of this piece is to look at the criminalisation of prayer – and this concerns me gravely. The regularisation of prayer as an activity under the law, is of great concern – and it should be a great concern.
It is indeed “a step too far”.
Three thoughts: Here in the USA, it is called the FACE laws. One cannot pray, think, or be anywhere near an abortion clinic without the risk of being arrested, even having the FBI come and remove you from your family in front of your family. Oppose this action at all costs, regardless of what you think about abortion. The “thought” police are everywhere. Second, we must first be able to have the child born before we can begin protecting its rights and help after birth. Again, while we are accused of caring only for the unborn and never the born, be careful of the opinions formed from what our press puts out. Nothing could be further from the truth. Finally, I had to chuckle a bit about how the USA Bishops put it first and foremost above all causes is something we only pray for. I have devoted my adult life to this cause, worked as a respect life director in one of our Diocesan offices, and have silently prayed outside of clinics, worked for pro-life legislation, and even long past when I should have retired, I cannot stop yet. We have many miles to go before we rest here in the USA. We have more than 65 MILLION tiny bodies to prove we are not there yet. May God help us all.