Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was arrested in November 2022 for silently praying near an abortion clinic in Birmingham, England—which authorities called a “thought crime.” Although she was acquitted the following February, she was arrested again a few weeks later for the same alleged offense. After six months, the police decided not to bring charges against her, but her ordeal demonstrated the willingness of authorities in many Western nations to trample religious freedom in order to enforce progressive policies. Isabel recently spoke to Decision, accompanied by Lois McLatchie of Alliance Defending Freedom International, which represented her in court.
Q: How would you describe the abortion climate now in the United Kingdom?
Isabel: We are in a very grave situation at the moment. In terms of abortion statistics, we had the highest rate ever last year. Nearly half, about 100,000, were repeat abortions. Abortion pills by post are now legalized, so women can get an abortion without even speaking to a doctor, let alone seeing one. Ultimately, they’re responsible for dating their own pregnancies, and we’re seeing some horrific situations with women holding on to abortion pills late into pregnancy and having late term abortions at home. Obviously, they’re seeing the result of that abortion—seeing their own dead child, they’re left to dispose of the remains of their child.
The government isn’t trying to help provide alternatives. Instead, they are passing legislation establishing buffer zones throughout the country, where any pro-life activity is banned. Of course, this is why I was arrested, simply for praying silently inside a buffer zone.
Q: The fight for the right to life for the unborn is an uphill battle, isn’t it?
Isabel: There’s never a moment to pause and collect yourself. There’s just one obstacle after another. With the limited resources, funds and manpower that we have against the abortion industry, it really is a David-and-Goliath situation.
But of course, we know who wins in the David-and- Goliath battle. The recent situations that we’ve had here, whether it’s with the buffer zone situations or even the pills by post, have given us opportunities to talk about what this issue really is.
Lois: Although Britain is a country that is built on free speech and generally has a good tradition of free speech, somehow abortion has become the anomaly to that tradition. Suddenly it is OK to censor people who are pro-life because that’s just a difficult problem to talk about as Brits. That climate of censorship toward this one topic has spilled out into the legislation that we’re seeing.
Q: Isabel, tell us more about your story.
Isabel: I’ve been going outside abortion centers for about 20 years, offering help and alternatives to people in difficult situations.
There are people who come out of the abortion centers and have had abortions. We’re trying to direct them to where they can get healing, or simply to be there in prayer for everyone who’s affected by abortion.
For the last 10 to 12 years, I’ve been organizing 40 Days for Life in my local area in Birmingham. There’s a good body of volunteers who support this initiative. When the Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) came in Birmingham, generally my volunteers moved outside the buffer zone and were praying there.
But it’s a fundamental right to be able to think what I want, which is ultimately what our silent prayers are; they’re simply thoughts directed toward God. So I went inside the buffer zone, as I had been doing previously, but I wasn’t carrying any posters, any leaflets; I wasn’t manifesting my prayer in any way.
To somebody walking past, I could have been waiting for a taxi or a friend. I was just standing on a street corner near the abortion center, but in my head I was saying my prayers. Now there’s some locals in that area who obviously know who I am, and they told the police that I was there.
So quite quickly the police turned up. I explained that I wasn’t there protesting—I was trying to make it clear that I wasn’t breaking anything that the buffer zone order had particularly stated is not allowed in that area.
They asked if I was praying, and I said that I might be praying in my head, but nothing out loud. And that was the basis of the arrest—what I might be thinking in my head. It seemed quite surreal at the time. I was heavily searched on the street, everything taken out of my pockets, simply because of what I might have been thinking.
The abortion center wasn’t even open at that time. I couldn’t possibly be intimidating or bothering anyone using the abortion center because there was no one using it.
I was taken to the police station, locked in a cell for a few hours and questioned. One of the things they wanted to know was what I was thinking about, what my prayers had been for. I shared with them what I’d been praying about. That was the basis for them charging me for engaging in an act that was intimidating service users. And as I said, there were no service users.
I eventually went to court alongside a priest who was also taken to court at the same time. He had a bumper sticker that said “Unborn Lives Matter,” and his car was parked inside the buffer zone. We both were acquitted within a matter of minutes. Thankfully, common sense prevailed very quickly.
And so, naturally, having been acquitted, I thought that it’s generally been accepted that it is lawful to silently think whatever I want inside this exclusion zone. So a couple of weeks later, I went again inside the buffer zone, stood in exactly the same place and did exactly the same thing.
And the police turned up again. This time there were six police officers with a police van. Quite aggressively, they asked what I was doing and said that my prayers were an offense. And when I reminded them that it was simply silent prayers, I was told that didn’t matter. In a way, they became even more emphatic.
So again they arrested me. I was similarly taken off to the police station and put in a cell for a while, and put on bail for three months. Even after I was taken off bail, I wasn’t told that the charges had been dropped, or whether the investigation was still carrying on.
It took six months before I was told that the case was no longer being investigated. From March till October, I was left in this state of uncertainty, not knowing whether anything was going to happen because of my thoughts inside the buffer zone.
It took six months—six months!—to investigate my silent thoughts.
The police force nowadays are in a way more ideologically and politically driven. We would expect the police to be neutral and just to be upholding the law.
Q: How ludicrous is it that they thought someone praying silently was offensive?
Isabel: It does certainly seem surreal that that should happen. And my concerns are about the fact that prayer is specifically put in the wording of the buffer zone. So if my thoughts were for or against abortion, I don’t think it’s as clear as to whether that would have been acted upon. But it’s because those thoughts are directed toward God. In my mind that becomes very discriminatory toward people who have religious beliefs, whatever those religious beliefs might be.
Lois: If it was not about abortion—if Isabel had stood there protesting climate change or any other social issue and had a loudspeaker and placards—this would have been perfectly legal.
Q: What role has prayer played in leading you to this point?
Isabel: I wouldn’t want to be doing this work if prayer wasn’t a part of it. Buffer zones came in when I was having conversations with women. I was very much aware that prayer had a key role in those conversations, and while we might not be talking about faith, I was very much aware that it was prayer that was upholding those conversations and ultimately prayer that was going to change somebody’s heart.
This is clearly a spiritual battle, which is why prayer has come under fire. In the area where I hold my 40 Days for Life campaign, we have an abortion center on one corner of the street and a church on the other corner. It’s almost like that battle line has been set where the buffer zone is drawn. That’s the battle line, between God and Satan. It is a spiritual battle because that is what raises human life above the animals—that each human is made in the image and likeness of God, which gives every human unrepeatable and immeasurable value.
It’s so important to make sure that every woman recognizes her own value and the value of her child, and that life is sacred.
Lois: Isabel was arrested under a local measure, of which there are five in England and Wales right now. But in the new year, that will be rolled out all over England and Wales. Every abortion facility in our country will have a censorship zone around it where you can’t pray or have consensual conversation.
We are hoping that the government will take an opportunity to clarify that freedom of thought is absolute when they launch this guidance. That’s what we’re campaigning for at the moment. ©2023 BGEA
Photo: ADF UK