The case is calling into question whether authorities have jurisdiction over the private thoughts within one's own head.
A woman who admitted she “might” have been praying while standing silently on a public street outside an abortion clinic (which was closed at the time) has been arrested and charged with four counts of breaking a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO). The case now has some questioning if authorities have jurisdiction to police the private thoughts within one’s own head.
According to the Alliance Defending Freedom UK (ADF), Birmingham police officers approached Isabel Vaughan-Spruce while she was standing silently on the sidewalk. She did not have any signs and was not vocalizing rhetoric or representing a pro-life cause by any visible means. Still, Isabel was arrested when she admitted that there was a possibility that she was praying silently in her head. The officers even searched her, going so far as to search the woman’s hair for contraband.
Isabel told the ADF:
“It’s abhorrently wrong that I was searched, arrested, interrogated by police and charged simply for praying in the privacy of my own mind. Censorship zones purport to ban harassment, which is already illegal. Nobody should ever be subject to harassment. But what I did was the furthest thing from harmful – I was exercising my freedom of thought, my freedom of religion, inside the privacy of my own mind. Nobody should be criminalized for thinking and for praying, in a public space in the UK.”
Vaughan-Spruce, who is the Director of the UK March for Life, said that she has long enjoyed prayer while walking and sometimes her walks take her near abortion clinics. She noted that she has silently and unobtrusively prayed outside these facilities for 20 years and it has never before been a problem.
When officers showed her security footage of her standing outside the clinic on three separate occasions, she said it was impossible to know if she was praying at those moments. She could just as easily have been thinking about something else. ADF notes that the Birmingham law criminalizes individuals perceived to be “engaging in any act of approval or disapproval or attempted act of approval or disapproval” of abortion. This includes public prayer.
Jeremiah Igunnubole, Legal Counsel for ADF UK, called the arrest “deeply concerning” and decried the “unaccountable discretion” which the law gives to police officers. He said:
“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.”
Igunnubole went on to lament the recent increase to the buffer zone around abortion clinics, in which no demonstrations can be made. This new buffer zone is 150 meters, larger than a soccer field and 1.6 times the size of an American football field.