Leading pro-life groups in the UK are very upset today after MPs voted for censorship zones outside abortion centers that ban people from praying silently outside businesses that kill babies in abortions.
MPs were voting on an amendment to a clause introducing buffer zones around abortion clinics, which had been added into the Public Order Bill at an earlier stage. The amendment sought to specify that silent prayer and consensual conversations outside abortion clinics would not be included in buffer zones legislation. This was defeated by 116 to 299.
The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) has reacted with disappointment after the vote, that saw throught crimes enshrined into law.
Alithea Williams, SPUC’s Public Policy Manager, said: “It is very disappointing that MPs have rejected even this modest amendment, which was trying to ensure that thoughtcrime was not enshrined in UK law. Introducing buffer zones already means that ordinary citizens will be branded criminals and subject to crippling financial penalties for witnessing peacefully and offering help to women in need.
“Today MPs have proved that they approve of arresting people even for silent prayer. They heard the outrageous example of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce being arrested for silently praying in Birmingham and decided this needed to happen nationwide.”
“This is not just an outrageous assault on civil liberties, it removes a real lifeline for women,” Miss Williams continued. “Many children are alive today because their mother received help and support from a compassionate pro-life person outside a clinic. Many women feel pressured or coerced into having an abortion, and pro-life vigils give them options. Now their choices have been taken away.”
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The vote comes one day after a British pro-life leader was arrested for silently praying outside an abortion business.
British police arrested Isabel Vaughan-Spruce late last year for praying silently outside an abortion facility in Birmingham after a censorship zone had been approved prohibiting pro-life people from protesting, counseling, praying or even being located in the zone. Vaughan-Spruce was carrying no sign and remained completely silent until approached by officers and said she “might” have been praying at the time of her arrest.
She was eventually charged with with four counts of failing to comply with a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) by breaching an exclusion zone outside a Birmingham abortion clinic.
The Crown Prosecution Service eventually droped the charges due to “insufficient evidence” and a court eventually dismissed the charges.
Now Isabel has ben arrested for praying again on the eve of a vote in the British Parliament on banning silent prayer near abortion facilities.
“You’ve said you’re engaging in prayer, which is the offense,” police said as they arrested Vaughan-Spruce.
“Silent prayer,” she confirmed.
“You were still engaging in prayer, which is the offense,” a policeman states.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a pro-life legal group representing Vaughan-Spruce condemned the arrest.
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“Police wrongly claimed that the PSPO “buffer zone” banned Isabel from simply standing near a clinic. This is simply not true. A court ruled only weeks ago that Isabel broke no laws by thinking a prayer in her mind. How can MPs roll out this law with so little clarity?” it asked.
After she won in court last month and the charges were dismissed, Vaughn-Spruce complained about efforts to deny pro-life Christians rights to prayer and speech.
“I’m glad I’ve been vindicated of any wrongdoing. But I should never have been arrested for my thoughts and treated like a criminal simply for silently praying on a public street,” she said outside the court.
“When it comes to censorship zones, peaceful prayer and attempts to offer help to women in crisis pregnancies are now being described as either ‘criminal’ or ‘anti-social’ ‘But what is profoundly anti-social are the steps now being taken to censor freedom of speech, freedom to offer help, freedom to pray and even freedom to think. We must stand firm against this and ensure that these most fundamental freedoms are protected, and that all our laws reflect this,” the pro-life leader added.
ADF UK legal counsel Jeremiah Igunnubolealso responded to the court’s decision. The pro-life legal group has been representing Vaughan-Spruce.
“Isabel 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 think long and hard about whether we are still a free and democratic society and a free and democratic country and if so national censorship zones must be rejected,” he said.
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…”.
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.
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.
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.”