“How could my presence, standing here, possibly in any way, shape or form be considered harassment or intimidation?”
“It’s the praying that you’ve admitted to, Sir.”
Thou shalt not pray, it seems, has now become official dogma in Britain.
The exchange noted above took place on a cold November morning on a street in Bournemouth, where Adam Smith–Connor – a father of two and an Afghanistan veteran – had stopped to pray. The street was within a so-called ‘buffer zone’ – really a censorship zone – imposed by the local council around an abortion facility. The zone bans the expression of any form of approval or disapproval of abortion, including through prayer, handing out leaflets, or crossing oneself.
Adam had been present in the zone, which covers several streets, for only a few minutes when he was approached by officers.
It wasn’t an out-of-the-ordinary activity for Adam. He had been volunteering near the abortion facility since 2019 as part of a group which prays and offers leaflets about charitable support available to women who express interest in finding alternative options to abortion. Removing the tribal spectacles of abortion politics that can warp our views of such measures, it’s not hard to view this as a noble cause. Almost one in five women who have an abortion in the U.K. do so against their will, according to the BBC. If women would like to avoid abortion if only they had financial, emotional or practical support, then it is right to supply these needs. This, surely, is the real ‘pro-choice’.
However, the introduction of buffer zones across five local councils, and soon to be rolled out across the country at the behest of the Conservative Government under the Public Order Act 2023, has forbidden Adam’s group from engaging in this charitable activity in Bournemouth. So they don’t. Adam wasn’t speaking to any women that day. He wasn’t even looking at them. He prayed silently, with his back to the clinic, standing by a tree to ensure he was out of the way and not bothering anyone. He stopped to pray in his mind, rather than expressing anything out loud, since that would have been forbidden in the censorship zone.
He prayed specifically about his own experience of abortion. Adam has participated in the procedure as part of his medical training in the past. And 22 years ago, he paid for his girlfriend to have an abortion – a decision that grieves him deeply now. He prayed about his son, Jacob, who he lost – and for the men and women facing these same difficult decisions today.
You might think Adam is abhorrent for his views. Or you might sympathise with a grieving man. Maybe you agree with him that no woman in the U.K. should feel like she has no other option.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that Adam was penalised for silently praying outside an abortion clinic. He admitted to council officers who approached him that he was praying in his head. Game over. Adam was issued a fine, because he was thinking thoughts that were disapproved of by the authorities.
He didn’t pay the fine. This army vet had fought in Afghanistan because he believed in the principles of freedom that the U.K. had championed – democracy, free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of thought.
To pay the fine, he believed, would be complicit with the erosion of these fundamental freedoms secured both in international and domestic law. It simply shouldn’t be illegal to pray anywhere in the U.K.
Fast forward eight months of legal uncertainty and Adam was in court on Wednesday. He entered a ‘not guilty’ plea. His trial date is fixed for November.
It’s a terrible cliché to invoke Orwell when describing the news these days. But one can hardly fail to compare this dystopian tale to the activities of the Thought Police in 1984. For all the Home Secretary’s commitments to stamp out wokery in public order regulations, the suppression of free speech in abortion clinic ‘buffer zones’ has gone from bad to worse under this Government. The ‘a’ word – abortion – can cause politicians to lose their minds when it comes to freedom of expression. Protecting free speech for gender critical feminism wins more favour and applause. But Adam’s belief in protecting babies in the womb, and supporting women to avoid abortion, is not illegal. The right to free speech exists to protect those beliefs that are not currently in vogue.
As the Government prepares guidance for the role out of the Public Order Act 2023, it has a chance to clarify that even in these censorship zones, the human right to think heretical thoughts inside one’s own head remains in tact.
Lois McLatchie writes for ADF UK, the charity backing Adam Smith-Connor’s legal defense. Find out more, and add your support here.