BIRMINGHAM (20 December 2022) – A charity volunteer has been arrested and charged on four counts after she told the police she “might” be praying silently, when questioned as to why she was standing on a public street near an abortion facility.
Police approached Isabel Vaughan-Spruce standing near the BPAS Robert Clinic in Kings Norton, Birmingham. Vaughan-Spruce was carrying no sign and remained completely silent until approached by officers. Police had received complaints from an onlooker who suspected that Vaughan-Spruce was praying silently in her mind.
“It’s abhorrently wrong that I was searched, arrested, interrogated by police and charged simply for praying in the privacy of my own mind. Censorship zones purport to ban harassment, which is already illegal. Nobody should ever be subject to harassment. But what I did was the furthest thing from harmful – I was exercising my freedom of thought, my freedom of religion, inside the privacy of my own mind. Nobody should be criminalised for thinking and for praying, in a public space in the UK,” said Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, following her arrest for silent prayer.
The censorship zone measure introduced by Birmingham authorities criminalises individuals percieved to be “engaging in any act of approval or disapproval or attempted act of approval or disapproval” in relation to abortion, including through “verbal or written means, prayer or counselling…”.
A “thoughtcrime” in UK law?
Vaughan-Spruce had stood near the abortion facility whilst it was closed on three occasions, in which she says she “might” have been praying.
When shown pictures of herself outside the abortion facility by police, Vaughan-Spruce was questioned as to whether she was praying in the photos. She said she could not answer – some of the time she had spent praying, other times she had been distracted and thought about other things, such as her lunch. She maintains that both of these thoughts were equally peaceful and imperceptible and that neither should be criminalised.
“Isabel’s experience should be deeply concerning to all those who believe that our hard-fought fundamental rights are worth protecting. It is truly astonishing that the law has granted local authorities such wide and unaccountable discretion, that now even thoughts deemed “wrong” can lead to a humiliating arrest and a criminal charge,” said Jeremiah Igunnubole, Legal Counsel for ADF UK, the legal organisation supporting Vaughan-Spruce.
“A mature democracy should be able to differentiate between criminal conduct and the peaceful exercise of constitutionally protected rights. Isabel, a woman of good character, and who has tirelessly served her community by providing charitable assistance to vulnerable women and children, has been treated no better than a violent criminal. The recent increase in buffer zone legislation and orders is a watershed moment in our country. We must ask ourselves whether we are a genuinely democratic country committed to protecting the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of speech. We are at serious risk of mindlessly sleepwalking into a society that accepts, normalises, and even promotes the “tyranny of the majority,” he continued.
As part of her conditions for bail, Vaughan-Spruce was told that she should not contact a local Catholic priest who was also involved in pro-life work – a condition that was later dropped.
Police also imposed restrictions, as part of her bail, on Vaughan-Spruce engaging in public prayer beyond the PSPO area, stating that this was necessary to prevent further offences.
Pro-Life Views under Pressure
Vaughan-Spruce is the Director of the UK March for Life and has volunteered for many years in support of women in crisis pregnancies.
“I have devoted much of my life to supporting women in crisis pregnancies with everything that they need to make an empowered choice for motherhood. I am also involved in supporting women who have had abortions and are struggling with the consequences of it. I’ve grown close to many of the women I’ve been able to support over the years, and it breaks my heart to know that so many more go through this every day,” explains Vaughan-Spruce.
“My faith is a central part of who I am, so sometimes I’ll stand or walk near an abortion facility and pray about this issue. This is something I’ve done pretty much every week for around the last 20 years of my life. I pray for my friends who have experienced abortion, and for the women who are thinking about going through it themselves,” she continued.
Her arrest follows another recent incident in Bournemouth where a woman was told to leave by local authorities for praying, even outside of the local censorship zone. Find out more.
Last year, a grandmother from Liverpool successfully overturned her charge on human rights grounds after she was arrested and fined for praying silently near an abortion facility on a walk during lockdown. Find out more.
Westminster weighs up nationalising censorship zones in light of human rights concerns
In Westminster, parliamentarians are considering legislation to introduce censorship zones in England and Wales. Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill, currently under parliamentary debate, would prohibit pro-life volunteers from “influencing”, “advising”, “persuading”, “informing”, “occupying space” or even “expressing opinion” within the vicinity of an abortion facility.
Those who breach the rules could face up to two years in prison.
A 2018 government review into the work of pro-life volunteers outside of abortion facilities found that instances of harassment are rare, and police already have powers to prosecute individuals engaging in such activities. The most common activities of pro-life groups were found to be quiet or silent prayer, or offering leaflets about charitable support available to women who would like to consider alternative options to abortion.
At 150m, the national censorship zones would be larger than a football pitch (115m). In the equivalent space, if one goalkeeper were to pray for the other goalkeeper – regardless of impact or noticeability – that would be an offence.
The censorial provisions of the parliamentary bill drew substantive criticism from members of the House of Lords, including Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Beith, who deemed the clause “the most profound restriction on free speech I have ever seen in any UK legislation.” Lord Farmer called the clause “fundamentally flawed”, and asked, “When one walks past, one sees that vigils are often small groups of harmless, mainly female, pensioners. Why should they be banned and silenced?”
The Clause has caused great controversy following a statement released from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State shortly after MPs voted to include it, admitting that the clause “could not be said to be compliant” with Convention rights as protected in the European Court of Human Rights.
Baroness Claire Fox, who advocates for abortion, pointed out that “creating prohibitions on protest on an issue-by-issue basis is not an appropriate way to make law. It sets a precedent that will inevitably lead to attempts to prevent speech, expression, information sharing, assembly or the holding of protected beliefs around other sites or in relation to other controversial or unpopular causes.”