A woman has been arrested and charged after she told police she “might” be silently praying whilst she was standing on a public street near an abortion clinic in Birmingham.
Director of the March For Life UK, Isabel 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.
She was searched, arrested and then interrogated. Police showed her pictures of herself standing near the clinic and asked her if she was praying. Vaughan-Spruce said she “might” have been praying but could not recall if she was praying at these specific moments, or whether she was thinking about something else, such as her lunch.
“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.
“It’s abhorrently wrong”
The Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) introduced by authorities in Birmingham 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 through “verbal or written means, prayer or counselling…”.
Vaughan-Spruce went on to say “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.”
“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 added.
“[E]ven thoughts deemed “wrong” can lead to a humiliating arrest and a criminal charge”.
Jeremiah Igunnubole, Legal Counsel for ADF UK, the legal organisation supporting Vaughan-Spruce said “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.”
“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.
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”, “advising”, “persuading”, “informing”, “occupying space” or even “expressing opinion” within 150m of an abortion clinic.
As written, the Government has said that the clause is not compatible with human rights law.
Right To Life UK spokesperson Catherine Robinson said “Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was arrested for the private pro-life thoughts in her mind. She was not intimidating or harassing anyone. As has been pointed out many times, there are laws in place to prevent harassment and intimidation and these should be enforced if and when necessary. There is no need for draconian legislation that criminalises thoughts”.