A pro-life group has launched legal action against Birmingham City Council over the implementation of a ‘buffer zone’ that censors free speech and makes it illegal to peacefully pray outside of an abortion clinic in the city.
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, Miss Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, 45, who is the leader of the pro-life group, 40 Days for life Birmingham, will pursue a statutory review of the council’s decision to force through a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) in September 2022 following what has been described as an ‘unlawful’ and ‘sham’ consultation.
The PSPO, which are usually reserved for tackling anti-social behaviour such as drug and alcohol abuse and dangerous dogs, surrounds the British Pregnancy Advisory Group’s (BPAS), Robert Clinic in Kings Norton, Birmingham.
40 Days for Life, an international grass roots organisation dedicated to ending abortion, includes a small group of volunteers who are predominantly local to Birmingham. Since January 2020, the volunteers have been regularly praying for and offering help and information on alternatives to abortion to women outside of the clinic. Many of the volunteers have been through abortions themselves.
The buffer zone, however, has now essentially criminalised the group’s ministry by prohibiting any discussion of abortion within the area. This includes prayer, counselling and providing information and support available to women in crisis pregnancies. Using the word ‘baby’ or ‘mum’ is also now an offence.
Anyone found guilty of breaking the PSPO could face six months in prison.
Disturbingly, the PSPO also now gives power to ‘designated’ members of the public to essentially spy on the zone and facilitate the removal of anyone perceived to be breaking the PSPO order.
The original proposals included a Catholic Church in the zone which would have made it a criminal offence to pray for a woman attending the clinic in the church grounds.
The targeted clampdown on the 40 Days’ activities comes despite there being no evidence of the group doing anything ‘anti-social’ or criminal.
Instead, Miss Vaughan-Spruce says that the police and local council have done little to protect the group’s volunteers from being subjected to harassment, assault, anti-Christian abuse and being spat at by members of the public who oppose their presence and beliefs.
Video footage includes a male member of the public assaulting two female volunteers, with further reports of volunteers having their possessions stolen and receiving threats to their families.
One young woman was told by an aggressive man he would ‘tear her arms off’ if he saw her offer a leaflet of help to a woman.
In a witness statement provided by Miss Vaughan-Spruce, she describes speaking to police about her concerns for their safety, only to be told by an officer: ‘Well if they don’t want to be assaulted, they don’t have to leave their house, do they?’
When another volunteer, who had been assaulted outside of the clinic by a member of the public, asked the police why they only attend the area when clinic staff call them, they were told: ‘We need to keep an eye on you as you might have been infiltrated by the BNP.’
Within this context, in April 2022, Miss Vaughan-Spruce has said she was shocked and ‘disgusted’ when she was informed by the council that an online consultation would be launched with the aim of introducing a PSPO that would criminalise the ministry she leads.
The public documents produced by the council as part of the consultation, accused 40 Days volunteers of committing anti-social behaviour and crimes, without any evidence, and despite the police having never warned or accused them of committing them.
Questions on the consultation were shaped in a way that they suggested that 40 Days were already in the wrong, and it was simply a question of what should be done about it.
Backed by the Christian Legal Centre, Miss Vaughan-Spruce will now challenge the validity of the PSPO with lawyers arguing that the council has exceeded its powers.
They will say that the council did not have the power to make the PSPO because officials wrongly sought to prohibit peaceful and lawful behaviour which cannot properly be characterised as “anti-social”, and for which there is no evidence.
Furthermore, lawyers will argue that the PSPO is disproportionate and interferes with Miss Vaughan-Spruce’s human rights under Article 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Lawyers will also say that it does not appear that the Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police was properly consulted over the proposals.
The High Court will be asked to declare the PSPO unlawful, unjustified and an interference with Miss Vaughan-Spruce’s and other pro-lifers’ rights.
The case follows a developing trend of local authorities using the PSPO legislation to shut down free speech, especially on the issue of abortion.
This has culminated in last month MPs voting for an amendment to the Public Order Bill which will impose buffer zones around all abortion clinics in England and Wales.
A statement from the government has since brought into question whether the amendment is ‘compatible with the ECHR’ and said there will be more scrutiny as the Bill moves through parliament.
This week on the BBC, Minister for Women, Maria Caulfield, has stated that she believes six months in prison for comforting a woman outside of an abortion clinic is a ‘disproportionate response.’
Buffer Zones have also been hotly debated as part of the Public Order Bill in the House of Lords. The Bishop of St Albans said “I have serious concerns about this clause as it stands. The term ‘interferes with’ is so broadly defined that it includes seeking to influence, merely expressing an opinion, or attempting ‘to inform about abortion services’. I cannot believe that this is proportionate given the existing powers possessed by the police and local authorities.”
Miss Vaughan-Spruce’s case is backed by witness statements from a woman and a couple who have been helped by 40 Days for Life.
One woman wrote to the Birmingham City Council detailing how the group had helped her. She said: “We are and will be forever grateful to this one lovely lady who in no way pushed herself or forced her way onto us or our situation, it was our decision, and she was there for us either way. It was a safety when we needed it and it gave us everything and more when we were able to walk away from the most horrendous day of our lives.
“We truly could not thank her enough, not for a whole lifetime for our baby girl is more precious than anything else.’A statement from a couple said: “As we were walking out of the clinic ground to the road side to wait for a bus back home. I decided to approach these men standing with flyers. I accepted one of their flyers and tried to enquire what it was all about. I was just looking for a reason not to come back to this clinic. When they explained the whole process to me and suggested I should contact the number on the flyer, which was Isabel Vaughan-Spruce. When we got home, I immediately called Isabel and she was very happy to hear from me, so we arranged a visit for the next day . . . She left that day with a summary of everything we needed. She later called us a day or two after, to have debts of over £5,000 paid off.”
Local resident support
A witness statement from a local resident has questioned local MP Steve McCabe’s approach to the consultation and issue as a whole. It says: “I found that McCabe’s repeated use of the word ‘protest’, gave a very wrong impression. What I have seen outside the clinic does not have the hallmarks of a ‘protest’ (at which one would typically expect chanting, posters, large groups of people). I believe that what I have seen outside the clinic would more neutrally be described as a ‘presence.’ Typically, it amounts to two or three individuals standing quietly next to the hedge.
And the resident concluded:
“As a resident, I am deeply concerned about what I believe to be an attack on freedom of speech; an attempt, without a properly evidenced foundation, to prevent people from doing what is not unlawful or illegal; and an attempt to push an ‘unwelcome’ part of the Christian witness out of the public square.”
Another local resident living within the PSPO zone, wrote to the council saying that they feared for their family’s safety after witnessing a 40 Days for Life volunteer being assaulted.
They wrote: “I have never been approached by anyone from the council or police asking me what myself or my family as ‘close residents to the clinic’ thought about what was happening outside the Robert Clinic or what I had witnesses regarding 40 days volunteers. considering there was alleged to have been a year-long investigation I find this concerning.
He also added ‘I had at least one letter from Steve McCabe MP making allegations about protests outside the Robert Clinic which bore little resemblance to what I had witnessed myself.’
In response to claims in the council’s PSPO proposals that the leaflets being handed out to women attending the clinic are ‘unscientific’, a local Birmingham GP has provided expert evidence which says: “I consider this leaflet to be scientifically sound and acceptable to be offering those considering terminations.”
The statement added: “Informed consent requires information. Consent given under duress or in receipt of inadequate counselling is not valid informed consent. Not allowing women attending abortion centres to receive alternative information even if this happens to be a leaflet or a short conversation is a form of discrimination.”
‘We want justice upheld’
After launching legal action, Miss Vaughan-Spruce said: “Through this action I am not asking for anyone to agree with what 40 Days believes; others have the right to disagree. However, I am asking for justice to be upheld despite our differences in belief.
“40 Days has been portrayed as a group of judgmental, aggressive vigilantes, whereas in fact we have been the consistent victims of anti-social behaviour from residents and members of the public.
“It is rare that women using the clinic will behave negatively toward us, many just walk past without interaction, others take a leaflet but do not engage in conversation. However, many appreciate finding out what help is available and to have someone show genuine concern for them before or after their abortion. The PSPO prevents this from happening.
“We have continued to come outside the Robert Clinic, not because we enjoy it, but because it is part of the way that we live out our Christian faith in ensuring that those considering abortion have real alternatives presented to them.”
When Miss Vaughan-Spruce read the consultation documents, she said she was ‘disgusted’, describing them as: ‘One-sided hearsay and baseless allegations taken as proof. We sent a letter sent to the council outlining our concerns, but we received no response.
“We are filmed and photographed every time we pray outside the clinic. Yet despite this no one has ever been able to present any evidence that we have done anything wrong or ‘anti-social’.
“We are often described as ‘protestors’; we are not protestors, we are praying and handing out leaflets.
‘We believe it is totally disproportionate and unnecessary to ban prayer connected to abortion in an area where a Catholic Church is, as well as banning the use of the words ‘baby’ or ‘mum’ in any text/imagery.’
“Misinformation has been spread by residents, local newspapers, local MP Steve McCabe and local councillors containing inaccuracies which have irreparably damaged our reputation and further influenced public opinion. The public consultation sessions that were run were a sham.’
“The investigation and consultation including survey questions and public meetings have not followed due process and the consequence is that a PSPO has been issued that is not fit for purpose. Those providing real help for women at their time of crisis have been hounded out of the area, local bullies have been encouraged and peaceful prayer for those considering abortion, in an area right next to a Catholic Church, is now considered to be illegal. An offer of help outside the abortion centre is one of the few lifelines left to those feeling coerced, isolated, fearful or pushed into having an abortion due to their difficult circumstances.
“We are determined to seek justice and for our voice and concerns to be heard and not unlawfully suppressed.”
Abortion discussion censored
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “The effect of the PSPO is to criminalise 40 Days’ activities in Birmingham and to create an area where no discussion of abortion or even prayer relating to abortion, is permitted.
“There is no evidence whatsoever to show that anyone is being harassed outside abortion clinics. The truth is quite the opposite. It is the abortion supporters who intimidate and harass and do not permit any dissenting viewpoint.
“Following the introduction of Pills by Post at home abortions, the offer of help to women outside abortion clinics is one of the few lifelines left to those who feel helpless and coerced into going through with an abortion.
“40 Days for Life offers women and their babies one last chance to make a different choice – a choice for life. What kind of world are we living in when even that is being denied to them?
“There have now been over 10 million abortions in the UK since abortion was legalised in 1967. That is a staggering number. That is almost twice the population of Scotland and more than the entire population of London. Millions of people would be alive today if abortion had not been legalised.
“Instead of lamenting this loss of life we are industrialising it, making it ever easier to obtain abortion effectively on demand, and now planning to criminalise dissent.
“Buffer zones are an oppressive part of the current culture which force consent and silence dissent. The saddest thing of all is that we are actually talking about human lives.
“We stand with 40 Days for Life as they seek justice in this case. We call on MPs and the government to halt the introduction of repressive and draconian buffer zones across the UK.”
Find out more about Birmingham ‘buffer zone’