UK Punishes ‘Thought Crime’ of Praying Silently at Abortion Facilities
British police will continue to arrest Christians for the crime of praying within hundreds of feet of an abortion facility, after the U.K. Parliament voted down an amendment that would have legalized “silent prayer” — a situation Christians have described as a “dystopian” ban on pro-life “thoughtcrime.”
On Tuesday, Members of Parliament rejected an amendment to prevent police from arresting anyone “engaged in consensual communication or in silent prayer” within 164 yards of an abortion facility in England or Wales. The amendment, offered by Conservative MP Andrew Lewer, failed 116-299.
“The idea that we should interrupt the relationship between an individual and their God seems to me to be pretty monstrous,” said Sir John Hayes, a Conservative MP. “This is about freedom; it is not about the purpose of that freedom or the location of it. It is about the ability to think, speak, and pray freely.”
The bill, which originally imprisoned protesters, allows judges to impose a potentially unlimited fine for unauthorized prayer.
“What are we doing, by saying that people should not be allowed to pray, quietly, on their own?” asked MP Danny Kruger. “Never in modern British history have we criminalised thought,” he added. Similarly, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative Member of Parliament and a pro-life Roman Catholic, said he could not remember Parliament barring “any previous thoughtcrime in this country.”
Another Conservative MP, Sir Edward Leigh, invoked George Orwell’s “1984,” in which “the state was trying to regulate not just people’s actions but what goes on in their minds.” Sir Hayes described the law as “dystopian. It’s like a mix of [“Brave New World” author Aldous] Huxley [and] Philip Dick.”
Yet British citizens have had a “lackluster response” to the bill, because the media’s distorted coverage claimed “this legislation that would have stopped abortion has been defeated,” said Peter McIlvenna, co-founder of the U.K.-based Hearts of Oak podcast, on Tuesday’s “Washington Watch with Tony Perkins.”
MPs had already adopted an amendment to the Public Order Bill which penalizes anyone who “seeks to influence ... attempts to advise or persuade, or otherwise expresses opinion” about abortion within 150 meters (approximately 492 feet) of an abortion facility “by any means … without limitation.” Its author, Labour Party MP Stella Creasy, boasted after Lewer’s amendment failed that free speech-exclusion zones had been “protected from the sabotage amendment.”
The amendment came after arrests of Christians praying quietly outside abortion facilities garnered international media attention.
Police arrested Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, the 45-year-old director of the U.K. March for Life, last December 6 for admitting, “I might be praying in my head” outside a Birmingham (U.K.) abortion facility. Officials charged her with “engaging in an act that is intimidating to service users,” in an area covered by a public space protection order (PSPO).
Officers also took a Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Fr. Sean Gough, into custody last month for standing silently outside the same Birmingham abortion facility while holding a sign that read, “Praying for free speech.” Prosecutor Ekene Pruce dropped four counts of violating PSPOs against Fr. Gough and Vaughan-Spruce inside the Birmingham Magistrates’ Court on February 16.
But police arrested Vaughan-Spruce a second time on Monday, March 6, again for offering wordless prayer outside the British Pregnancy Advisory Service abortion facility in Birmingham.
“I’m not protesting,” she told police.
As a condition of her bail, the Catholic pro-life advocate cannot be within an even larger proximity to an abortion facility than the area covered by the new free speech-exclusion zones. The U.S. Justice Department under Democratic leadership frequently seeks similar penalties for American pro-life advocates seeking to avoid trial for violating the federal FACE Act.
Tuesday’s vote proves a majority of MPs “heard the outrageous example of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce being arrested for silently praying in Birmingham and decided this needed to happen nationwide,” said Alithea Williams, public policy manager of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, a U.K.-based pro-life organization.
Not all those engaging in prayer escape penalties for interceding inside the prayer-free zone surrounding abortion facilities. Authorities fined British Army veteran Adam Smith-Connor £100 (approximately $120 U.S.) for praying for his son, whom he lost in an abortion, outside a Bournemouth abortion facility last November.
The U.K. abortion industry argues silent prayer and non-affirming speech about abortion must be criminalized to protect abortion-minded women from harm. But a 2018 government review found that the “main activities reported to us that take place during protests include praying, displaying banners and handing out leaflets. Since the comprehensive investigation turned up “few” accounts of genuinely “aggressive activities,” said then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid, “introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response” to peaceful pro-life sidewalk counseling.
Banning consensual conversations might also harm women who are being “coerced into going into one of those places to have a forced abortion,” noted Conservative MP Nick Fletcher. A BBC survey taken last March found that 15% of women had been pressured into an abortion, including 5% who reported physical abuse and 3% who had been given an abortion-inducing drug without their knowledge.
Discussions about abortion would reap the greatest benefit from the unique insights Christians bring to bear, said McIlvenna. In much of the U.K., “there doesn’t seem to be any understanding of the importance of life,” McIlvenna told Perkins. “That’s where I think our Christian understanding comes into this, because everyone has intrinsic value, because we are all made in the image of God.”
Yet even secularists understand the legislation violates Britons’ rights. A European Convention on Human Rights memorandum released last month found the Public Order Bill may violate numerous rights recognized by the charter, including freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of expression; and the freedom of association and peaceful assembly.
“The government should never be able to punish anyone for prayer, let alone silent prayer, and peaceful and consensual conversation,” said Jeremiah Igunnubole, a legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom’s U.K. branch. “Today it’s abortion. Tomorrow it could be another contested matter of political debate.”
“A free society should never prohibit the peaceful exchange of information,” Igunnubole concluded.
Ben Johnson is senior reporter and editor at The Washington Stand.