A Catholic priest praying silently near a closed abortion clinic has been arrested in the U.K. for “breaching” a censorship zone and for “intimidating service-users,” as well as for having an “unborn lives matter” bumper sticker on his parked car, marking the third time pro-life Christians have been charged in the U.K. for committing thought crimes.
Father Sean Gough was arrested while holding a sign that read “praying for free speech” outside an abortion clinic in Birmingham. At the time, the facility was closed. Initially, when police officers approached Gough and spoke to him, they did not think that the priest was breaking the rules. However, after Gough was invited for an interview at the police station and interrogated over his actions, he was criminally charged.
The Public Spaces Protection Order is a new law that makes it illegal to pray and engage in other forms of “protest” in areas surrounding abortion clinics. Since it went into effect in October, at least three pro-lifers have been arrested for praying near abortion clinics.
Gough says that “he was conceived in the context of severe violence” but his mother “found the grace and strength to fight for us both,” even though many people pushed her to get an abortion. As a result, much of his time is spent working with the ministry Rachel’s Vineyard to counsel women and men harmed by abortion, as well as counseling women dealing with crisis pregnancies.
He has been especially disturbed by the censorial developments taking place in his country around peaceful pro-life efforts. He explained,
“I pray wherever I go, inside my head, for the people around me. How can it be a crime for a priest to pray? I often pray in my head near the abortion facility, but at the time in question, I was praying for free speech, which is under severe pressure.”
He was referring to not just the law but police actions in carrying out the law. When the police spotted Adam Smith-Connor, a father and a British Army veteran, praying silently near an abortion clinic, they asked him to reveal “the nature of his prayer.” He answered that he was “praying for his son, who is deceased,” referring to a child who had been aborted at the facility 22 years prior. The police arrested him and he was subsequently fined for his actions, though Smith-Connor is fighting the punishment.
Likewise, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was searched and arrested while praying outside an abortion clinic in Birmingham by three police officers. She indicated that she was not “protesting” but she may have been praying in her mind within the censorship zone; she was also charged for “intimidation. The long-time pro-lifer has since had her charges dropped, but prosecutors warned her that the charges could be reinstated should new “evidence” emerge. For this reason, Vaughan-Spruce is asking a court to provide a definitive ruling on the charges.
The Crown Prosecution Service has also decided to drop the charges against Gough, but once again, the government warned him that he too isn’t out of the woods with the charges. So, the priest will also be looking to the courts to completely clear his name.
Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom UK, which is representing all three arrestees, responded to the latest charge by stating:
“The process in and of itself has become the punishment for people like Father Sean, who face onerous legal battles simply for holding peaceful views in certain public spaces, against the will of authorities. Nobody should be criminalised for peaceful activities like praying for the state of free speech in our country, or having a simple bumper sticker on their car that expresses a belief that ‘unborn lives matter.’ This case demonstrates the far-reaching and illiberal consequences of so-called ‘buffer zones.’”
We’ve written a lot about these cases in the U.K. because they are so unbelievably tyrannical. A pro-lifer, a grieving father, and now a priest have been arrested by their own government for simply talking to God near a “healthcare” clinic where horrific crimes against God’s most innocent and vulnerable image-bearers are committed every day.
Even though the charges against Gough and Vaughan-Spruce have been dropped, it is clear that the point of this exercise is to force them to run the expensive, onerous gauntlet that is the legal system — and use their examples as a way to intimidate other pro-lifers into staying away from abortion clinics.
These types of tactics are being used in the U.S. as well. The numerous pro-lifers arrested for alleged violations of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act are similar to pro-lifers in the U.K. None of these people did anything wrong, and the government knows that, as can be seen by the quick decision of the Crown Prosecution Service to drop the charges. The point has already been made though, which is to frighten other pro-lifers into changing their activities, to make them think twice before praying near an abortion clinic.
Supposedly these laws prevent pro-lifers from blocking a woman from accessing an abortion clinic or intimidating her. However, in none of the arrests was anyone blocking access to a clinic nor attempting to intimidate a woman. Two of the three arrested in the U.K. were praying when the abortion clinic was closed, while the other was praying with his back turned to the clinic.
So whether in the U.K., where your very prayers could get you charged, or in the U.S., where counseling women could bring a massive team of FBI agents to your door for a dawn raid, the government wants to make it clear to pro-lifers: Don’t get involved in trying to help women and their preborn babies — or else you’ll regret it.
Despite the risk, pro-lifers cannot allow governments to push them into hiding. There are biblical accounts of brave men and women who risked their lives to defend babies ordered killed by governments.
In Exodus 1, Pharoah commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the male Hebrew babies. “But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17) God blessed the midwives because they obeyed God rather than Pharoah. In the next chapter, Moses’s family also disobeyed Pharoah and hid him for three months. When they could not hide him any longer, Moses’s mother hid him in a basket and placed him by the bank of the Nile, where he was saved by Pharoah’s daughter.
In 2 Kings 11, Jehosheba hid Joash from Athalia, who tried to kill all of the royal offspring.
Perhaps most famously, in Matthew chapter 2, the magi were instructed by King Herod to tell him when they had found the baby born as the King. After being warned by God, though, they went home by a different route and did not tell Herod. Herod was enraged and killed all the baby boys two years and under in Bethlehem.
Any of these people could have been killed for working against the government to try to save these children’s lives, but they did it anyway. And God blessed them for it.
We now have a modern example as well. Mark Houck, the pro-lifer who was found not guilty after being tried for FACE Act violations at a Philadelphia Planned Parenthood, returned to that same abortion clinic with his entire family yesterday and prayed.
“We went because this is what we do,” Houck said in an interview with the Daily Signal. “It’s our mission to stand up for women, men, and the pre-born child. I will be there every week, God willing.”
Pro-lifers in the U.S. and the U.K. must not let anyone stop them from doing what they know to be righteous and compassionate. They must ignore the intimidation efforts and stand up against these unjust laws. And they must continue to speak truth and try to rescue babies and their mothers from the powerful entities who would profit off of the murder of human beings. As Mark Houck put it, “This is what we do.”
Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.