The separate prosecutions of a priest and a volunteer for silently praying outside an abortion clinic have been dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service.
Isabel Vaughan Spruce and Fr Sean Gough, who were both charged for allegedly violating a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), have both been acquitted after the prosecution said that the cases did not meet the “full code test” for prosecutors. This test assesses whether the prosecution is in the public interest and if there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction.
When pressed for a reason why the full code test had not been met, Ekene Pruce, the prosecution, told the judge “I would not be able to comment on that.”
Before the charges were dropped, the priest had been charged with breaching buffer zone rules by praying silently and holding a sign with the words “praying for freedom of speech” near a closed abortion clinic in Birmingham. He also faced a further charge for an “Unborn Lives Matter” sticker on his car that was parked nearby.
The area surrounding the abortion facility is covered by a local Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), which came into effect in September 2022. The PSPO prohibits prayer, offers of help, counselling and other activities that could constitute “protest”.
Speaking outside the court after the charges had been dropped, Fr Gough said “I’m pleased that I’ve been cleared of all the charges today and have cleared my name.”
“It’s wrong for authorities to censor parts of the street from prayer – even silent prayer – and from peacefully having conversations and sharing information that could be of great help to women who want an alternative choice to abortion.”
He added “I was charged for praying for freedom of speech and for an old bumper sticker on my car that read ‘unborn lives matter’. I stand by my convictions – unborn lives do matter.”
“Whatever your views are on abortion, we should be able to agree that in a democratic country, we should not be in the business of prosecuting thought crimes.”
She told police she “might” be silently praying and was arrested
Vaughan-Spruce was standing near the British Pregnancy Advisory Service clinic in Kings Norton, Birmingham, with no signs or outward expression of political views of any kind. She was in complete silence. Police officers, who had received a complaint from an onlooker, approached her and began to ask her what she was doing.
Ms Vaughan-Spruce said she had been “arrested and criminalised simply for my private thoughts on a public street”.
“Those who are trying to offer alternatives are being branded as criminals and told that their behaviour is anti-social”, she added.
“What is profoundly anti-social is that in 2023 there are still certain members of our society who are having their most fundamental rights taken from them – the right to life itself.”
Parliamentarians are currently considering introducing blanket censorship zones across England and Wales rather than on the local level through PSPOs. An amendment to the Public Order Bill would prevent pro-lifers from “influencing” decisions within 150m of an abortion clinic.
Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson, said “The acquittal of Fr Gough and Ms Vaughan-Spruce is excellent news. However, the PSPO that apparently forbids silent prayer in one’s own mind within certain spaces remains in place. This is a draconian piece of legislation that literally seeks to police thought.”