A British woman who was arrested for mentally praying outside a closed abortion facility last month is pursuing a verdict even after the government dropped its charges against her last week.
In December 2022 authorities approached Isabel Vaughan-Spruce as she stood quietly outside the BPAS Robert Clinic in Kings Norton, Birmingham. The police questioned Vaughan-Spruce and demanded she explain her presence.
“Are you standing here as part of a protest?” asked the officer.
“No, I’m not protesting,” Vaughan-Spruce said.
“Are you praying?” the police officer asked her.
“I might be praying in my head,” she replied, at which point the officers publicly subjected the woman to a lengthy search — including a thorough hair examination — and led her away.
The abortion facility was closed at the time of the thought crime.
At the station, Vaughan-Spruce was shown photos of herself standing outside the abortion center. She was unable to recall for the police officers at which moment she had been praying or at which moment she had been thinking mundane thoughts, such as her lunch.
Vaughan-Spruce's thought crime falls under the Birmingham Council’s Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) for the area, which prohibits “protesting, namely engaging in any act of approval or disapproval or attempted act of approval or disapproval, with respect to issues related to abortion services, by any means. This includes but is not limited to graphic, verbal or written means, prayer or counselling.”
PSPOs are laws set by local government councils which regulating public activity to ward off “anti-social behaviour.”
The Crown Prosecution Service, which originally charged Vaughan-Spruce with “protesting and engaging in an act that is intimidating to service users,” dropped the charges last week due to “insufficient evidence” but said they “may well start again” pending further evidence.
Vaughan-Spruce, however, is pursuing a full dismissal of her charges in court, said Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) in a statement.
“It can’t be right that I was arrested and made a criminal, only for praying in my head on a public street. 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. 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. 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. That’s why I’ll be pursuing a verdict regarding my charges in court,” explained Isabel Vaughan-Spruce.
“Isabel is right to request proper clarity as to the lawfulness of our actions. It’s one thing for the authorities to humiliatingly search and arrest an individual simply for their thoughts. 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. 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. ADF UK remain committed to supporting Isabel’s pursuit because no one should fear prosecution for silent prayer and thoughts in the privacy of their mind,” commented Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK.