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The Global Network Behind Arrested Anti-Abortion Protestor

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Charges against a woman arrested for ‘praying’ outside an abortion clinic may have been dropped but she is one node of a global network, reports Sian Norris

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Charges have been dropped against a protestor arrested for breaching a ‘buffer’ zone around a Birmingham abortion clinic.

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was charged with breaking a public space protection order introduced by Birmingham City Council to ensure people visiting and working at the BPAS reproductive healthcare clinic “have clear access without fear of confrontation”.

She was due in court on 2 February but charges have now been dropped against her, although the prosecution has suggested further proceedings. She has said she still wants to seek a “clear verdict” in court. 

The week before her court hearing, the Democratic Unionist Party hosted Vaughan-Spruce, raising questions about the influence of the global anti-abortion movement in Parliament. 

Her arrest was described by the DUP MP Carla Lockhart as highlighting “the draconian impact of buffer zone legislation”. Other attendees at the event were MPs Sammy Wilson, Paul Girvan, Gregory Campbell and Ian Paisley Jr.

Vaughan-Spruce is represented by ADF International – the Europe arm of the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF has been branded a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a designation it rejects. She is a member of 40 Days for Life, a US-based organisation that runs anti-abortion protests outside clinics in the Americas, Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Australia. 

The two organisations represent two nodes of the global, networked anti-abortion movement determined to undermine women and girls’ access to reproductive healthcare. 

The Activist Network

To understand how the UK’s anti-abortion movement is global, networked and inter-connected, 40 Days for Life is a good place to start. The US organisation started its 40-day, round-the-clock protests in 2007 and since then it has grown to have branches on every inhabited continent. 

Its tactic is to host ‘praying vigils’ outside or in the vicinity of abortion clinics, and claims to have closed 132 abortion centres.

It provides its network with resources and promotes the crisis pregnancy service CareNet on its website. The crisis pregnancy movement has been accused of “deceiv[ing] and manipulat[ing] women with dangerous misinformation. They consider themselves the foot soldiers of the anti-choice movement”. 

Care Net is linked to Heartbeat International, a global crisis pregnancy service which in 2020 was exposed for promoting abortion misinformation around the world. 

The group’s UK-based international director, Robert Colquhoun, is an alumni of the Leadership Institute, having taken part in its annual International School of Fundraising. It trains conservative activists, including the radically anti-abortion former US Vice President Mike Pence, and supported Lila Rose from the grassroots anti-abortion group Live Action. The latter was involved in campaigning for ‘no’ during the Repeal the 8th Referendum in Ireland in 2018.

He is also connected to the radical anti-abortion group Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, which hit the headlines in 2019 for erecting a billboard featuring graphic abortion imagery outside the constituency office of Labour MP Stella Creasy. 

The extremist group has shared far-right conspiracy theories, with former director Wilfred Wong claiming that abortion is “satanic ritual sacrifice” and “that both Satanism and Islam share one very common goal which is destruction of Christianity”. During a video interview, Wong argued that an unnamed left-wing politician wanted to increase migration from predominantly Muslim countries into the EU so “within weeks the EU would have been outnumbered in terms of the ratio of Muslims to non Muslims”.

This is an example of what is known as the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy – that ‘liberal elites’ are aiding the ‘replacement’ of a Christian majority in the Global North through mass migration. The replacement, the theory claims, is being aided by feminists who ‘repress the birth rate’ via abortion and contraception. 

CBR UK is the local branch of the US Centre for Bio Ethical Reform, set up by former Congressman Gregg Cunningham. In 2012, Cunningham highlighted the importance of the UK in the anti-abortion war, stating “the UK is a high priority for us, because it is arguably the most influential country in Europe. Trends on the continent often find their origins in the British Isles”.

The organisation has a relationship with Christian Concern, part of the Parent Power coalition which campaigns against sex and relationships education in schools. DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson hosted the group’s launch in Parliament.

A leaked agenda for the London summit of the Agenda Europe network reveals that Robert Colquhoun attended the 2013 event, alongside leading anti-abortion activists, conservative thinkers and anti-gender funders.

Agenda Europe campaigned against abortion and LGBTQ+ rights throughout the 2010s, publishing a manifesto and hosting regular events for its members. Other attendees in 2013 included CitizenGO’s Ignacio Arsuaga; ResPublica’s Phillip Blond, and the Archduke and Archduchess Hapsburg-Lorraines. 

A year later, guests at the 2014 summit included Alexey Komov, staff member of a charitable foundation run by the indicted Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, known as Vladimir Putin’s man in Europe.

Another attendee mentioned in the London 2013 summit agenda was Sophia Kuby – then part of European Dignity Watch and now a senior staff member of ADF International. The religious freedom giant is providing legal support to Vaughan-Spruce.

The Legal Network

The US-founded Alliance Defending Freedom is the second node in the network and one of numerous American legal organisations fighting against abortion rights globally.

Other examples include the Liberty Counsel and the American Centre for Law and Justice. It has extended its operations into Europe over the past 10 years, spending $16.1 million across the region since 2015. 

It helped to fund anti-abortion law firms whereby legal minds authored the legal arguments that helped to overrule Roe versus Wade last June – the 1973 decision which allowed nationwide access to abortion in the US.

ADF was successful in challenging buffer zones in the US, winning a Supreme Court case in which it argued that the zones were in breach of religious freedom. It argued that buffer zones “severely burdens” protestors in their “ability to win the attention of both willing and unwilling listeners and, consequently, from reaching the minds of their intended audience. Some people may have difficulty reading signs or hearing clearly from 35 feet away or less”. The zones, it claimed, also prevented people “from speaking to clients in a normal conversational tone”.

The organisation has seen its influence increase in the UK, being quoted in a Government white paper on freedom of speech on campus, while also increasing its spend. It has taken the tactics and strategies learned in the US across numerous campaigns, including gay cakes and ‘cancel culture’, and applied them to Britain.

Unlike the US Supreme Court, the House of Commons voted in favour of buffer zones – despite anti-abortion opposition. It was a win for the pro-abortion movement but continues to be challenged by a global network determined to inhibit women’s access to reproductive healthcare. 

Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, said: “Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was criminally charged for simply praying in her head outside a closed abortion facility, when no service-users were around. To be able to pray – think – in one’s head is a core human right which is fundamental to everybody, no matter their view on abortion.

“We urge the Prime Minister to revisit the issues raised by Clause 9 of the Public Order Bill, which go far beyond proportionate condemnation of harassment or obstruction at the entrances of abortion facilities.”

Carla Lockhart MP did not respond to a request for comment.


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