Adam Smith-Connor prayed silently on a public street in Bournemouth, England, earlier this month, his back to an abortion clinic. When community safety officers asked what he was doing, he told them he was “praying for [his] son, who is deceased.”
The officers expressed condolences but then said Smith-Connor, a 49-year-old physical therapist and British army veteran, was “in breach” of a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), according to a video of the incident. Later he was fined.
The PSPO at issue is a local ordinance enacted in October 2022 establishing a “safe zone” comprising multiple city blocks surrounding the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) abortion clinic. The ordinance prohibits protesting “whether by yourself or with others,” and it defines protesting to include prayer.
The deceased son Smith-Connor referenced to the officers was aborted nearly three decades ago, he explained in a release from Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADFI), a conservative legal group supporting him. Smith-Connor paid for the abortion but now regrets it and believes the procedure harms babies, women, and families.
“I would never have imagined being in a position to risk a criminal record for praying silently,” Smith-Connor said.
Smith-Connor isn’t the only UK resident to be punished recently for silent prayer outside an abortion clinic. Pro-life activist Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was arrested in Birmingham in December for violating a similar PSPO. When asked by authorities what she was doing near an abortion facility, she replied that she might have been praying. She was asked to go to a police station for questioning and was arrested when she refused.
A third UK resident, Rosa Lalor, was arrested in 2021 for prayer walking silently outside an abortion clinic in the city of Merseyside. Her arrest was based on alleged violations of COVID-19 protocols against protesting—though she was outdoors, socially distanced, and masked—rather than a PSPO. Police later dropped the charges.
These incidents represent a new frontier in the assault on religious liberty, according to ADFI.
“For Christians, the right to freedom of speech is crucial because it is the very right that allows us to freely share the gospel, and given the very clear mandate of the Great Commission, Christians, of all people, should be spearheading the defense of the right to freedom of speech,” ADFI legal counsel Jeremiah Igunnubole said.
“Adam and Isabel’s cases provide the clearest evidence that society’s failure to robustly protect the frontiers of free speech has resulted in the state machinery now feeling emboldened to interfere with our most basic right—freedom of thought.”
The threat to pro-life activism in the UK may be broader than these two cases. Five British cities have enacted PSPOs: Manchester, Richmond, Ealing, Birmingham, and Bournemouth. Similar laws are being considered in Scotland and Northern Ireland, along with national legislation in the UK parliament.
The nationwide legislation has been approved by the House of Commons, the lower chamber in the UK’s governmental system, but awaits passage by the upper chamber, the House of Lords.
Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill would establish a 150-meter “buffer zone” around every abortion clinic and prohibit “interference with access to or provision of abortion services” within that zone. The bill, which does not mention prayer explicitly, says a person is guilty of interference who “informs or attempts to inform about abortion services by any means” in a buffer zone.
A government fact sheet on the bill states, “These are sensible and proportionate measures designed to allow the police to better balance the rights of protestors and the public.”
Igunnubole disagrees. He says the possibility of national abortion clinic buffer zones is both “perplexing” and an about-face in terms of government policy.
“Since 2018, there have been yearly calls to implement national censorship zones in England and Wales,” he said. “Until now, these calls have been rejected due to a review by the Home Secretary in 2018 finding that there is a weak evidential base to support the imposition of national censorship zones, such as to make its introduction disproportionate. That review was government policy up until as recently as September 2022. The government has not formally changed its policy, which is why it is perplexing that [they] have supported clause 9 through parliament.”
The UK records more than 200,000 abortions annually. The nation’s rate of 17 abortions per 1,000 women is slightly less than the US’s 20 and well behind Russia’s 50-plus abortions per 1,000 women, according to a data compilation by the World Population Review.
Similar abortion clinic buffer zone laws exist in France, the Netherlands, and Germany—though a German appellate court ruled in August that silent prayer gatherings near an abortion counseling facility cannot be prohibited.
In the German city of Pforzheim, the group 40 Days for Life had conducted prayer vigils twice annually outside an abortion facility. The city banned such vigils in 2019, but the court said that ban violated a German right to freedom of assembly.
“We welcome the court’s judgment, which reaffirms freedom of assembly and other fundamental freedoms as the foundation of a free democracy,” said ADFI legal officer Lidia Rieder. “This is a clear victory not just for 40 Days for Life, but also for all concerned with the protection of fundamental human rights. The German people have the right to peaceful assembly and expression, including silent prayer, on their public streets.”
In the UK, the path ahead for religious liberty could be bleak, Igunnubole said, unless basic human rights are reemphasized.
“We are seeing the growing enforcement of progressive culture and viewpoint uniformity by threat of criminal prosecution,” he said. “This is the first step on a very bleak path.”