Charges dropped, for now, against woman arrested for praying silently outside UK abortion clinic

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce / ADF UK

Denver, Colo., Feb 3, 2023 / 15:45 pm (CNA).

Authorities in the U.K. have dropped charges against a woman arrested for silent prayer in a “buffer zone” that bans pro-life advocacy outside an English abortion clinic.

However, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce says the charges still could be revived, leaving her in an ambitious legal situation.

“It can’t be right that I was arrested and made a criminal, only for praying in my head on a public street,” Vaughan-Spruce said in a Feb. 3 statement.

“So-called ‘buffer zone legislation’ will result in so many more people like me, doing good and legal activities like offering charitable support to women in crisis pregnancies, or simply praying in their heads, being treated like criminals and even facing court,” she added.

Vaughan-Spruce was arrested Dec. 6, 2022, in Birmingham, England, outside an abortion facility that was closed at the time. 

Video footage of her arrest shows an officer asking her if she was praying, to which she answers: “I might be praying in my head.” You can watch the exchange in the video below.

She was charged Dec. 15 with four counts of breaking Birmingham’s Public Space Protection Order around the abortion facility. The order is intended to stop antisocial behavior. The terms of the order include prayer under “protest,” which is banned within the “buffer zone” around the clinic. For standing still and praying silently inside a buffer zone, she was accused of “protesting and engaging in an act that is intimidating to service users.”

Vaughan-Spruce is the director of March for Life UK

The Crown Prosecution Service dropped the charges in late January and Vaughan-Spruce did not have to appear in court, as previously scheduled. However, she can still be prosecuted if the charge is reinstated.

Her case has the support of ADF UK, a religious freedom legal group.

Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, said in a Feb. 1 statement that Vaughan-Spruce faces “significant legal uncertainty.” She aims to “obtain legal clarity on what, if any, liability she may incur in the future based on the charges laid against her.”

Vaughan-Spruce said she will pursue a verdict in court to clarify her legal situation.

“It’s important to me that I can continue my vital work in supporting women who’d like to avoid abortion if they only had some help,” she said. “In order to do so, it’s vital that I have clarity as to my legal status. Many of us need an answer as to whether it’s still lawful to pray silently in our own heads.”

“Isabel is right to request proper clarity as to the lawfulness of our actions,” Igunnubole said.

“It’s one thing for the authorities to humiliatingly search and arrest an individual simply for their thoughts,” the attorney said. 

“It’s quite another to initially deem those thoughts to be sufficient evidence to justify charges, then discontinue those charges due to ‘insufficient evidence,’ and then to warn that further evidence relating to the already unclear charges may soon be forthcoming so as to restart the entire grueling process from the beginning,” he said.

“This is a clear instance of the process becoming the punishment, creating a chilling effect on free expression and freedom of thought, conscience, and belief,” the attorney added.

Several localities in England have implemented strict buffer zones, which some critics characterize as censorship zones. On the national level, the U.K. Parliament is expected to pass legislation to create buffer zones around abortion clinics. The House of Lords approved the proposed legislation, called Amendment 45, in a voice vote on Jan. 30.

Amendment 45, sponsored by Conservative peer Baroness Sugg of Coldharbour, would make it a crime to engage in activity that seeks to “influence” women who are seeking abortions or “any person’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services.”

It criminalizes “harassment, alarm, or distress to any person in connection with a decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services” within 150 meters, about 500 feet, of an abortion clinic.

Those convicted of violating the law could face an unlimited fine, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children reported. 

The House of Lords rejected an amendment to investigate whether exclusion zones are justified and their possible denial of rights of association, conscience, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. Amendment 54 replaces similar legislation in the House of Commons, which is expected to ratify the amendment.

Alithea Williams, public policy manager for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, lamented the passage of the bill.

“This is a black day for democracy and basic civil liberties,” she said Jan. 30. “Ordinary, peaceful citizens will now be branded criminals and subject to crippling financial penalties for the simple act of praying in public, and offering help to women in need.”

“Parliament has literally just criminalized compassion,” Williams said. “This is not just an outrageous assault on civil liberties, it removes a real lifeline for women. Many children are alive today because their mother received help and support from a compassionate pro-life person outside a clinic. Many women feel like they have to choose to have an abortion, and pro-life vigils give them options. Now their choices have been taken away.”

Williams cited Vaughan-Williams’ arrest and the arrest of Adam Smith-Connor, who faces fines after he prayed outside of an abortion clinic for his son who died in an abortion.

“Thoughtcrime is now very real in the U.K. It is very disappointing that peers ignored these warnings and voted for this extreme and cruel legislation,” Williams said.

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