The persecution and betrayal of the pro-life cause

While early indications reflect a decline in the number of abortions in the months following the US Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v Wade,1 a backlash to the decision has contributed to a significant worsening of the situation in Europe. In France, a consensus is emerging across the political spectrum aimed at guaranteeing access to abortion under the constitution.2 In January, the Italian Chamber of Deputies, dominated by the coalition Government of Georgia Meloni, voted with virtual unanimity to prohibit the adoption of any measure that would restrict access to abortion even indirectly.3 And in Britain and Ireland, lawmakers are in the process of introducing “buffer zones” which will criminalise all pro-life activity in the proximity of abortion facilities. Perhaps the most sinister aspect of this policy is the imposition of punitive fines to stamp out prayer, even silent prayer. In their determination to muzzle the pro-life movement, the advocates of buffer zones have made “thought crime” a reality. 

The creation of such buffer zones has been a long-time goal of the British abortion industry but until recently they could only be introduced through the use of Public Space Protection Orders and the power given to local authorities to tackle anti-social behaviour. While this power is quite broad in scope, a PSPO needs to be renewed after three years, at which point it can be challenged. On 13 October 2022, Bournemouth Council became the fifth local authority in England to institute a buffer zone when it prohibited pro-life vigils near the premises of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) in the town. Apart from the activities usually associated with pro-life demonstrations, the terms of the PSPO explicitly punishes members of the public who “audibly pray, recite scripture, genuflect, sprinkle holy water on the ground or cross themselves…”.4 Anyone violating the PSPO could face a fine up to £1,000.

On 6 December 2022, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, the director of March for Life UK, was standing alone near the BPAS facility in the Kings Norton area of Birmingham.5 Although she gave no outward indication of her views on abortion, the police had received a complaint from someone who suspected Isabel was silently praying. When challenged, she refused to deny that she had prayed in her mind. She was arrested, searched, and taken to a police station for further questioning. 

Then, in January, a 49-year-old army veteran whose son was killed in an abortion 20 years ago, was fined for breaching the Bournemouth PSPO. Adam Smith-Connor was standing with his back turned to the BPAS facility and praying silently when he was arrested. 

These incidents made international news and have drawn attention to the extreme measures now being deployed in the UK to stifle opposition to abortion. The pro-life organisation Alliance Defending Freedom UK (ADF) has become involved in both cases. ADF is challenging the fine imposed on Adam but in recent days Isabel’s situation has become less clear. Just 48 hours before a court hearing scheduled for 2 February, her legal team was told by the Crown Prosecution Service that the charges against Isabel were being dropped. They were warned, however, that the threat of prosecution remained and could recommence at any time. 

ADF is now trying to bring some legal certainty to the situation, but that is something the authorities probably hope to avoid. If the prosecution continued and resulted in an acquittal, then it could make the ban on prayer difficult to enforce. If Isabel was convicted of the offence of silently praying it would almost certainly be a violation of her freedom of thought guaranteed by article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. While the second part of article 9 allows state parties to regulate the manifestation of religious and political beliefs, the first part of this article is absolute.6 No government can legitimately punish someone simply for their thoughts and that, of course, includes mental prayer. Whatever the outcome of Isabel’s case, however, the position of the pro-life movement is set to get worse. 

In 2018, the London Government rejected calls for the nationwide introduction of buffer zones to England and Wales because new legislation was unnecessary. Since the evidence indicated that pro-life demonstrations were normally peaceful, any incident of intimidation or harassment that might arise could, they concluded, be dealt with through existing laws and local authorities could always resort to PSPOs. By October 2022, however, the political atmosphere had changed and the Government stood aside while MPs voted to include buffer zones within the Government’s Public Order Bill. Legislation aimed at addressing disruptive protests, such as those staged by climate activists, now contained a clause threatening up to two years in prison for peacefully seeking to defend the right to life of the unborn or offering help to pregnant women in the vicinity of an abortion centre. 

On 30 January, the House of Lords backed an amended version of this clause which will impose an unlimited fine rather than a custodial sentence. The sponsors of this amendment say it reflects “the Supreme Court judgment of December 2022 regarding a comparable law in Northern Ireland and the need to ensure compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998”.7 That law, the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Northern Ireland) Bill, passed by the Stormont Assembly just days before it was dissolved in March 2022, was quickly referred to the Supreme Court by the Province’s Attorney General.

While the Northern Ireland legislation makes no mention of prayer, this issue was of particular concern at the hearing before the Supreme Court last July. The Scottish Lord Advocate, Dorothy Bain KC, who intervened in the case, even argued that silent prayer was more damaging to women than noisy protests. When the judges delivered their verdict, they found no violation of the rights of pro-life demonstrators. Instead, they ruled that it was the “women and staff [who] are compelled to listen to speech or witness silent prayer which is unwanted, unwelcome and intrusive” who have their human rights violated.8

As the Lord Advocate is the chief legal advisor to the Scottish Government, it is almost certain that legislation due to be introduced to Holyrood later this year will threaten severe punishment for anyone caught praying within a buffer zone. Meanwhile, the Government of the Irish Republic has declared its intention to fine or even imprison anyone engaged in peaceful pro-life demonstrations and prayer vigils within 100 metres of an abortion facility.

The vehemence with which the abortion lobby has sought to eliminate pro-life prayer could be seen as an unconscious testimony to its perceived power. However, the artificial “moral panic” surrounding pro-life vigils when abortion drugs can routinely be delivered to women without any in-person consultation, may indicate that even more draconian restrictions are not far off. Yet, the principal danger to the pro-life cause does not come from the hostility of the abortion lobby but from the active opposition within the Catholic church.

On 25 January, Pope Francis called on Catholics to work for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in countries where such acts are unlawful.9 In many respects, Rome’s approach to legalised abortion mirrors this policy. Soon after his election, the Pope expressed his admiration for the illegal abortionist, Emma Bonino. Since then, he has appointed abortion advocates to the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV) and has repeatedly undermined those US bishops seeking to hold leading Catholic anti-life politicians to account. 

Precisely when it appeared that the tide on abortion might be about to turn, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the PAV, publicly defended the law responsible for the death of six million unborn Italian babies, calling it “a pillar of our social life”.10 If the Vatican has abandoned the pro-life cause what can be expected of Catholic politicians in Italy, France and Ireland?


 1. Charles A Donovan and Tessa Longbows “Since Dobbs, Pro-Life Laws Have Already Saved 10,000 Unborn Lives and Counting”, The Federalist, 22 November 2022. https://thefederalist.com/2022/11/22/since-dobbs-pro-life-laws-have-already-saved-10000-unborn-lives-and-counting/

2. Nicholas Bauer, “IVG: une révision constitutionnelle formulée comme une condamnation à mort” (Abortion: a constitutional revision formulated as a death sentence), European Centre for Law and Justice), 27 January 2023. https://eclj.org/abortion/french-institutions/ivg–une-revision-constitutionnelle-formulee-comme-une-condamnation-a-mort

3.  Tommaso Scandroglio, “A destra abortisti come a sinistra: la 194 è intoccabile” (Abortionists on the right as on the left: 194 is untouchable), La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, 26 January 2023.https://lanuovabq.it/it/a-destra-abortisti-come-a-sinistra-la-194-e-intoccabile

4.  BCP Council, Ophir Road and surrounding area Public Spaces Protection Order, 13 October 2022. https://www.bcpcouncil.gov.uk/Communities/PSPOs/Ophir-Road-and-surrounding-area-Public-Spaces-Protection-Order.aspx

5.  Birmingham City Council, Robert Clinic, Station Road B30 Public Spaces Protection Order, 7 September 2022. https://www.birmingham.gov.uk/downloads/file/24121/robert_clinic_station_road_b30

6. Art 9. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion. 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

7.  Baroness Sugg, Hansard, 30 January 2023. https://hansard.parliament.uk//lords/2023-01-30/debates/E5DBCE3B-D5DA-441A-91F8-5ED110FC8639/PublicOrderBill#contribution-C426E818-D5AD-43B5-9050-D675110AB60F
8.  Judgement, Ref by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland — Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Northern Ireland) Bill, [2022] UKSC 32 [2022], 7 December 2022, at 128. In paragraph 129, the Court falsely asserted that the Northern Ireland Bill is “intended to implement the United Kingdom’s international obligations under CEDAW, [the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women] and more specifically the recommendation in para 86 of the CEDAW report.” There is no legal obligation for the UK to comply with the recommendations listed in the 2018 report of the CEDAW Committee.

9.  Nicole Winfield, “The AP Interview: Pope says homosexuality not a crime”, Associated Press, 25 January 2023. https://apnews.com/article/pope-francis-gay-rights-ap-interview-1359756ae22f27f87c1d4d6b9c8ce212

10.  See: “Pontifical Academy attacks Catholic doctrine on human life”, Voice of the Family, 7 September 2022. https://voiceofthefamily.com/pontifical-academy-attacks-catholic-doctrine-on-human-life/