My arrest for silent prayer was not a ‘stunt’
Isabel Vaughan-Spruce responds to Ann Furedi’s spiked article about her arrest.
For 19 years, I prayed and offered help to women, in front of abortion facilities, who wanted to avoid abortions. For 19 years, nobody took issue with my peaceful thoughts or volunteering. On the 20th year, I found myself on criminal trial for doing what I had always done.
Many around the world saw the viral video of me being arrested last year, after I admitted to the police that I ‘might be’ praying – silently, in my own head – in an abortion-facility censorship zone in Birmingham.
Ironically, it’s thanks to England’s censorious new ‘buffer zone’ regulations that my silent, peaceful yet apparently ‘offensive’ prayers were heard around the world. Some have accused me of performing a ‘stunt’ through my arrest – including Ann Furedi, former head of abortion service BPAS, on spiked last week. Let me be clear: I was practising what I had done regularly for most of my adult life. I couldn’t, in good conscience, stop actively caring about vulnerable women facing abortion.
To comply with the new rules, I stopped offering leaflets about support available to women in crisis. Instead, I only prayed silently, in my head. I even made sure to go to the clinic outside of its operational hours, so that nobody was there. Surely this could never be illegal in a democratic society, I reasoned.
The police thought otherwise. I was charged with ‘protesting and engaging in an act that is intimidating to service-users’. It was a victimless crime – nobody was there to be offended by my silent thoughts. Even if I had been seen, they would have only seen me standing there, thinking, in a public space. In court, the prosecutor confirmed that the authorities could offer no evidence whatsoever to substantiate the charges.
Rest assured, I am no criminal. Happily, the court agreed, issuing a resounding ‘not guilty’ verdict. In a free society, there can be no zones where certain thoughts are illegal. Nor are such prayers anti-Christian, as Furedi bizarrely feels at liberty to claim in her article. Yes, Jesus told the hypocrites not to make a show of their loud, false prayers for public credit. But my faith has been put into unseen action in many years of service to women in crisis, and my prayers on that day were silent. There’s nothing hypocritical, loud or false about what I did. Upon further study of scripture, Ann might come across Daniel, who was banned from praying to his God by a tyrannical government. He continued to pray and express his faith, because blasphemy laws are not right. He prayed with a window open, knowing the danger that could ensue from his words, but also knowing that kowtowing to a dangerous cancel culture would ultimately be the greater wrong. Thankfully, unlike Ancient Babylon, the UK has laws to protect freedom of religion, freedom of thought and freedom of expression. Let’s not forget them.
My story matters, because free speech matters – yes, even if it’s about abortion. It’s so disappointing to see members of the free-speech movement like Furedi forget about free speech when it comes to an issue on which she disagrees. Ann’s article pointed to the fact that somebody filmed my arrest as evidence that it was all a ‘stunt’. Well, the ‘cameraman’ was a friend of mine with a phone, who had been sitting in his car nearby. We always advise volunteers to go in pairs. This is because volunteers who are simply offering leaflets about help available for women have been physically and verbally assaulted in the past. They’ve been threatened, had property stolen and been spat at – not by those using the abortion facility, but by pro-abortion campaigners who try to hamper our good work. My own sister was told by a man that if he saw her offer anyone a leaflet of help, he would rip her arms off.
In contrast, the women considering abortion who have been the beneficiaries of leaflets and our help services have spoken out positively about our presence. Just ask Carla, who thought she didn’t have the resources available to bring her child into the world, but was empowered to choose motherhood after receiving practical support. Or Alina, who along with almost one fifth of women who have an abortion, was about to do so against her will. Without a job or a supportive partner, she felt she had no choice. Thankfully, pro-life help services were able to give her another option. There are hundreds of these stories. But somehow the voices of these vulnerable women are often ignored in an elitist debate.
Anyone who claims to be ‘pro-choice’ with any sincerity should be able to see that so-called buffer zones are an own-goal. They remove choices for women. Who is the state to determine which information she may want to be privy to ahead of making such an important decision in her life? Please don’t patronise women by claiming that they are too sensitive to hear any alternative information than what is peddled in a clinic.
In fact, supporting buffer zones is also an own-goal for anyone in the free-speech movement, which claims to defend free speech even for those with whom they disagree. Furedi’s argument that I wasn’t censored from praying, but deserved punishment because I chose to do it in a censored zone, holds no water. Censorship being state-sanctioned doesn’t mean that it is right. Furedi wrote unsympathetically that my arrest was ‘inevitable’ because I didn’t voluntarily leave when the police asked – even though I was doing nothing wrong. If this is what it takes to deserve arrest, we are far more aligned to China and North Korea than we would care to admit. And now, the British state is considering rolling out abortion-clinic censorship zones nationwide.
The litmus test of free speech in society is whether we can support it for those with whom we disagree. It’s disappointing to see those who used to be free-speech absolutists crumble when it comes to the A-word. If members of the free-speech movement hold the gates open for police to arrest people like me on the basis of our silent thought, then we’re in a worse state for freedom than we have ever known.
Isabel Vaughan-Spruce is a charitable volunteer and co-director of March for Life UK. Earlier this month, she was acquitted of charges relating to praying silently in a buffer zone around an abortion clinic.
Picture by: ADF UK.
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