December 23, 2022 - 10:32am

Britain is now a country with designated zones where being suspected of thinking proscribed thoughts will attract the attention of police, even if you’re not acting on those thoughts in any way.

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, a 45-year-old woman from Malvern, has been arrested in Birmingham on suspicion of ‘praying silently’ inside an exclusion zone adjacent to an abortion centre. These zones were voted into effect in October this year, amid celebration of their value in protecting women seeking an abortion from harassment at an emotionally difficult moment. 

It’s customary in these situations to decry the breach of liberal norms involved in arresting someone not for doing something wrong but merely thinking. But if, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, all politics is now post-liberal, that means it’s once again explicitly the case that state power is aligned with a widely-shared moral order. 

This is a drum I’ve been banging for a little while, for contra the fond imaginings of some liberals we never really stopped ordering power to sacred values. After all, it’s not really possible to have a functioning polity otherwise. This, I argued shortly before the pandemic, is why hate crime laws appeared a scant few years after the abolition of blasphemy laws: they are blasphemy laws. We’ve just updated what we considered blasphemous. 

It’s not so very long ago that everyone would have understood instinctively that offensive behaviour such as public lewdness is much more offensive if it happens in a physical space treated as sacred. Peeing in public is gross; peeing on a church altar is offensive on a whole other level. You’d think, anyway. But peeing on an altar is no longer blasphemous enough to get you sent down in Europe: the European court recently overturned the prison sentence of a French activist who simulated aborting Jesus, naked, while urinating on a church altar. 

By contrast, Vaughan-Spruce’s arrest makes it clear that the zone surrounding an abortion centre is treated as sacred in a way that’s evidently no longer meaningfully the case (at least as far as the European court is concerned) of a church. She is an activist and director of March for Life UK, for one. But this in no way diminishes the growing sense that the activity being protected is also increasingly treated as sacred.

And this makes sense, for both are ordered by the same fundamental belief: that we’re all radically autonomous, atomised individuals, and the job of power is to protect us from other autonomous, atomised individuals who may try to hurt us. In that context the radical dependency of an unborn baby is less something sacred to be preserved than a threat to something sacred: the mother’s freedom. For in or out of the womb, a baby’s coming into existence necessarily happens at the cost of some freedom for that baby’s mother. 

We have sacralised autonomy to such an extent that laws uphold women’s right to it, even at the cost of another radically dependent life. And the issue is growing ever more moralised, as evidenced by the fact that even thinking disapproving thoughts about this radical commitment to individual autonomy is now treated as blasphemous, in zones where its most extreme sacrifices are made. 

Wherever you stand on the practical issues surrounding abortion, this is indisputably a profound statement on the relative values we accord to freedom, care and dependency — one with profound ramifications for how we see the weak and helpless in any context. That the practice is taking on sacramental colouring, for a religion of atomisation, should give us all pause.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.