A leader of the pro-life movement in the United Kingdom was detained for the second time in recent months for praying in silence outside of an abortion clinic.
Case of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce: The Pro-Life Leader
After the approval of a censorship zone in Birmingham that banned pro-life people from protesting, counselling, praying, or even being located in the zone, the British police arrested Isabel Vaughan-Spruce late last year while she was praying silently outside an abortion facility in the city. The zone had been designated as a location where pro-life people were not allowed to be located.
Vaughan-Spruce did not have any signs on her person and maintained complete silence until she was approached by law enforcement. When asked, she stated that she “might” have been praying at the time of her arrest.
As a result of her violation of an exclusion zone in front of a Birmingham abortion clinic, she was ultimately arrested and charged with four counts of violating a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), which is a criminal offence.
The charges against the pro-life leader were eventually dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service due to “insufficient evidence,” and a court also eventually dismissed the charges against the defendant.
Now, on the eve of a vote in the British Parliament on whether or not to prohibit silent prayer near abortion facilities, Isabel has been arrested for praying again and taken into custody.
While Vaughan-Spruce was being taken into custody, the police told him, “You’ve said you’re engaging in prayer, which is the offence.”
“Silent prayer,” (pro-life)she stated unequivocally.
A law enforcement official tells the suspect, “You were still engaging in prayer, which is the offence.”
Vaughan-legal Spruce’s representation, Alliance Defending Freedom, a pro-life legal group, issued a statement condemning the arrest.
“Police erroneously claimed that the PSPO “buffer zone” prohibited Isabel from merely standing near a clinic because it was part of their investigation. This is not even close to being accurate. A judge decided a few short weeks ago that Isabel did not violate any laws when she silently prayed in her head. How are members of parliament going to implement this law when there is so little clarity? it asked.
Vaughn-Spruce complained about efforts to deny pro-life Christians’ rights to prayer and speech after she won in court last month and the charges were dropped.
“I’m relieved that I’ve been cleared of any wrongdoing. “However, I should never have been arrested for my thoughts and treated like a criminal simply for praying silently on a public street,” she said outside the court.
“In censorship zones, peaceful prayer and attempts to assist women in crisis pregnancies are now being labelled as ‘criminal’ or ‘anti-social.’
But what is deeply anti-social are the steps being taken now to censor freedom of expression, freedom to offer assistance, freedom to pray, and even freedom to think. “We must fight back and ensure that these most basic freedoms are protected, and that all of our laws reflect this,” the pro-life leader added.
Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, also responded to the court’s decision. Vaughan-Spruce is being represented by a pro-life legal group.
“Isabel (pro-life leader) and Father Sean’s cases show that the current plans to introduce censorship zones across England and Wales constitute a dangerous step towards an illiberal society. “We ask parliamentarians to consider whether we are still a free and democratic society and country, and if so, national censorship zones must be rejected,” he said.
The Birmingham authorities’ censorship zone measure criminalises individuals perceived to be “engaging in any act of approval or disapproval or attempted act of approval or disapproval” in relation to abortion, including “verbal or written means, prayer or counselling…”.
Vaughan-Spruce claims that as a pro-life leader, she “might” have prayed while standing near the abortion facility while it was closed three times.
When police showed Vaughan-Spruce photos of herself outside the abortion facility, she was asked if she was praying in the photos. She stated that she was unable to respond because she had spent some of her time praying and other times being distracted and thinking about other things, such as her lunch. She believes 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 given local authorities such broad and unchecked discretion that even thoughts deemed “wrong” can now result in 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 distinguish between criminal behaviour and the peaceful exercise of constitutionally protected rights. Isabel, a woman of good character 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 truly democratic country committed to protecting the peaceful exercise of the right to free expression. We are in grave danger of mindlessly sleepwalking into a society that accepts, normalizes, and even promotes “majority tyranny,” he continued.
Vaughan-Spruce was told not to contact a local Catholic priest who was also involved in pro-life work as part of her bail conditions, a condition that was later dropped.
As part of her bail, police also prohibited Vaughan-Spruce from praying in public outside of the PSPO area, citing the need to prevent further offences.
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 also help women who have had abortions and are dealing with the consequences. “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,” Vaughan-Spruce says.
“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 the last 20 years. “I pray for my friends who have had abortions and for the women who are considering it,” she continued.
Her arrest follows another recent incident in Bournemouth in which a woman was told to leave by local authorities for praying even though she was outside the local censorship zone.
Last year, a grandmother from Liverpool successfully had her charge overturned on human rights grounds after being arrested and fined for silently praying near an abortion facility while on a walk during lockdown. Discover more.
Parliamentarians in Westminster are debating legislation to establish censorship zones in England and Wales. Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill, which is currently being debated in Parliament, would prohibit pro-life volunteers from “influencing,” “advising,” “persuading,” “informing,” “occupying space,” or even “expressing opinion” near an abortion facility.
Those who violate the rules may be sentenced to up to two years in prison.
A 2018 government review of pro-life volunteers’ work outside of abortion facilities discovered that harassment is uncommon, and police already have the authority to prosecute those who engage in such behaviour. The most common activities of pro-life groups were found to be quiet or silent prayer or the distribution of leaflets about charitable support available to women who want to consider alternatives to abortion.
The national censorship zones would be larger than a football pitch at 150m (115m). In the same situation, regardless of the impact or noticeability, it would be an offence for one goalkeeper to pray for the other goalkeeper.
Members of the House of Lords, including Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Beith, deemed the censorial provisions of the parliamentary bill “the most profound restriction on free speech I have ever seen in any UK legislation.” “When one walks past, one sees that vigils are often small groups of harmless, mostly female, pensioners,” Lord Farmer said of the clause. Why should they be prohibited or silenced?”
Following a statement released shortly after MPs voted to include it, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State admitted that the clause “could not be said to be compliant” with Convention rights as protected by 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 establishes a precedent that will inevitably lead to attempts to restrict free expression, expression, information sharing, assembly, or the expression of protected beliefs at other sites or in relation to other contentious or unpopular causes.”
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