LEICESTER, United Kingdom – New legislation strengthening “buffer zones” around abortion clinics in England and Wales “could very easily include many things that should never be criminalised such as prayer, thought, peaceful presence, consensual communication and practical support,” according to the Catholic Church.

Bishop John Sherrington, Lead Bishop for Life Issues for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said the rules are “both disproportionate and unnecessary.”

Clause 10 of the Public Order Bill, passed on March 7, criminalizes any effort to “influence” a woman’s decision to have an abortion within 150 meters (about 500 feet) of an abortion clinic. Such “influencing” could even include silent prayer.

Father Sean Gough and pro-life activist Isabel Vaughan-Spruce were arrested last year for silently praying near abortion clinics, but the charges were later dropped. The new legislation could allow prosecution in such cases.

“Throughout this Bill’s passage through Parliament, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has reiterated its concern that that this proposed legislation, despite any other intent, constitutes discrimination and disproportionately affects people of faith,” Sherrington said in a March 15 statement.

“We condemn all harassment and intimidation of women and hold that … there are already laws and mechanisms in place to protect women from such behaviour and there is little, if any, evidence to suggest that vigil participants engage in these behaviours. The broad formulation of Clause 10, coupled with this lack of evidence, makes it both disproportionate and unnecessary. We have also stressed that its implications could extend beyond the perimeters of a ‘safe access zone’ and it raises serious questions about the state’s powers in relation to the individual in a free society, both those with faith and those without,” the bishop continued.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) condemned Members of Parliament for rejecting an amendment which would have allowed for silent prayer and consensual conversations within the buffer zones.

“It is very disappointing that MPs have rejected even this modest amendment, which was trying to ensure that thoughtcrime was not enshrined in UK law. Introducing buffer zones already means that ordinary citizens will be branded criminals and subject to crippling financial penalties for witnessing peacefully and offering help to women in need,” said Alithea Williams, SPUC’s Public Policy Manager.

“This is not just an outrageous assault on civil liberties, it removes a real lifeline for women,” she continued. “Many children are alive today because their mother received help and support from a compassionate pro-life person outside a clinic. Many women feel pressured or coerced into having an abortion, and pro-life vigils give them options. Now their choices have been taken away.”

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome