Abortion clinic charges dropped against Wolverhampton priest

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Father Sean Gough and Isabel Vaughan-SpruceImage source, PA Media
Image caption,
Cases were dropped against Father Sean Gough and Isabel Vaughan-Spruce

A Catholic priest says "silent prayer" is being criminalised after charges claiming he intimidated service users near an abortion clinic were dropped.

Father Sean Gough and charity volunteer Isabel Vaughan-Spruce were facing four charges at Birmingham Magistrates' Court.

But prosecutor Ekene Pruce said both cases had been judged not to meet the "full code test" for prosecutors.

"Everyone has the right to pray in their mind," Fr Gough said.

The pair were due at separate hearings at the court on Thursday accused of failing to comply with a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) on dates in October, November and December.

Ms Vaughan-Spruce, from Malvern, Worcestershire, and Fr Gough, of the St Peter and St Paul Catholic Church in Wolverhampton, were both accused of "protesting and engaging in an act that is intimidating to service users" of a Birmingham clinic.

Asked by District Judge David Wain why the full code test had not been met, Ms Pruce replied: "I would not be able to comment on that."

The test assesses whether prosecutions are in the public interest and if there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction.

Speaking outside court after the hearing, Fr Gough said he was pleased he had been cleared and he stood by his conviction that unborn lives do matter.

Abortion rights have polarised sections of the community in recent years, with clinics in Birmingham among those to be targeted by anti-abortion protesters.

While demonstrations around the country have varied in scale, some women have faced harassment.

Plans to enforce buffer zones around abortion clinics in England and Wales were backed by MPs in October.

This would mean "harassing, obstructing or interfering" with any woman attending an abortion clinic would become a criminal offence.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
About 20 people protested outside court in support of the pair

"It's wrong for authorities to censor parts of the street from prayer - even silent prayer - and from peacefully having conversations and sharing information that could be of great help to women who want an alternative choice to abortion," Fr Gough said.

"I was charged for praying for freedom of speech and for an old bumper sticker on my car that read 'unborn lives matter'."

He added: "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?

"I call on the government to look into the overwhelmingly positive work that the vast majority of pro-life groups do to support vulnerable women at their point of need, before censoring the streets of the UK and allowing good people to be criminalised for acts of love."

'Fundamental rights'

Ms Vaughan-Spruce said she had been "arrested and criminalised simply for my private thoughts on a public street".

"Those who are trying to offer alternatives are being branded as criminals and told that their behaviour is anti-social," she added.

"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."

Under laws in England, Scotland and Wales abortions can take place in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.

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