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Thursday 18 July |
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Woman and priest charged with praying near abortion clinic cleared

UK police officers standing and writing

Brian A Jackson | Shutterstock

J-P Mauro - published on 02/18/23

While the cases have been dismissed, their brush with the law continues to spur debate on the prosecution of private thought.

Charges against a UK woman and a Catholic priest who were arrested for praying outside of an abortion facility have been dropped by the Birmingham Magistrates’ Court. While the cases have been dismissed, they continue to spur public debate about whether the government has overreached in its attempts to censor the private thoughts of its citizens. 

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce

Aleteia previously reported that Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was arrested while silently standing outside an abortion facility after its hours of operation. When approached by police officers she clarified that she was not protesting, but “might” have been silently praying. The officers arrested Vaughan-Spruce on four counts of breaking a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), even going so far as to subject her to a search for contraband in her hair. 

The PSPO, initiated in November 2022, prohibits prayer, distributing information about pregnancy help services, and other activities considered to constitute “protest,” within a certain radius around abortion clinics. A Public Order Bill, introduced to Parliament in May 2022, could place such extreme boundaries on abortion clinics around the country if it passes debate.

According to the Daily Mail, the charges were dropped because they were deemed insufficient to meet the “full code test” for prosecutors. This test assesses whether the evidence is strong enough to warrant a conviction, as well as whether it is in the public’s best interest to prosecute an alleged crime. 

Speaking outside of the court, Vaughan-Spruce decried the policies of criminalizing thought and offering alternatives to abortion. She went on to call the attempts to censor freedoms of speech, prayer, and thought “profoundly anti-social.” 

“What is profoundly anti-social is that in 2023 there are still certain members of our society who are having their most fundamental rights taken from them – the right to life itself,” Vaughan-Spruce stated. “Other freedoms are now being censored. The freedom to offer help, the freedom to speak, the freedom to pray, even the freedom to think.”

Father Sean Gough

At nearly the same time, but in a separate hearing, a Catholic priest who was arrested on similar charges was also cleared. The Independent reports that Father Sean Gough was arrested near an abortion facility while holding a sign that read “Praying for Free Speech.” The arresting officers also took notice of a bumper sticker on his car that read “Unborn Lives Matter.” 

Fr. Gough commented outside of the court: 

“Whatever your views are on abortion, we should be able to agree that in a democratic country we should not be in the business of prosecuting thought crimes.” The priest added, “Everyone has the right to pray in their mind.”

Fr. Gough went on to call on UK citizens to “stand firm” against such censorship in order to ensure the protection of “these most fundamental freedoms.” 

“If the government imposes censorship zones around every abortion facility in the country, as they are considering doing with the Public Order Bill currently under discussion, who knows how many more people are going to stand trial, how many people are going to be put in prison for offering help, for praying in their mind?”

Fr. Gough asked the government to examine the “overwhelmingly positive work” that pro-life supporters have done in support of “vulnerable women at their point of need.”

CatholicLawPriestUnited Kingdom
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