UK’s Pro-Life Movement Turns 50

NEWS ANALYSIS: Advocates for the unborn mark sad anniversary and gird for an uphill battle.

SIGNS FOR LIFE. Pro-lifers in Britain participate in March for Life UK to show their support for the dignity of human life.
SIGNS FOR LIFE. Pro-lifers in Britain participate in March for Life UK to show their support for the dignity of human life. (photo: March for Life UK)

LONDON — The 50th anniversary of the legalization of abortion in Great Britain was commemorated last month with deep regret in the British pro-life movement, which faces strong pro-abortion majorities in government and recent pressure from professional medical groups to expand abortion access.       

The Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of England & Wales and Scotland issued a statement on the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act.

“Over the last 50 years, the bishops of our countries, along with many other people, have spoken consistently in favor of the intrinsic value of human life and both the good of the child in the womb and the good of the mother,” the statement said. “This anniversary provides an opportunity to lament the loss of life due to abortion and seek a change of minds and hearts about the good of the child in the womb and the care of mothers who are pregnant.”

After looking at some of the positive changes in attitudes to the disabled and those born with handicaps, the bishops also pointed out that much has been done in those intervening years to provide for the care of single mothers. The statement also supported “those who work through our political system to protect human life from the moment of conception.”


24 Weeks

Abortion is legal in Britain up to 24 weeks under Abortion Act 1967. After that, it is illegal unless there is a substantial risk to the woman’s life, including her mental health, or, as the statute states: “there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.”

In any event, for an abortion to take place, two registered medical practitioners must be “of the opinion, formed in good faith,” that the individual circumstances of the woman are such as to meet the legal criteria.

In the past 50 years, almost 8.9 million abortions have been carried out in Britain. That translates to 488 abortions each day, with 20 per hour and three every minute. It is the equivalent of the combined current populations of both Scotland and Wales.

Given those numbers, and given the widespread acceptance of abortion and contraception (the Church of England in 1930 became the first Protestant denomination to allow contraception), the pro-life movement in the U.K. faces a daunting task of educating the public on abortion and the dignity of the human person.



John Smeaton, chief executive of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, told the Register, “On the one hand, the challenge to the pro-life movement in Britain is perhaps greater than it has been since the passage of the Abortion Act 1967. There are strong pro-abortion majorities in both the Westminster Parliament and in the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood; in addition, both the U.K. and Scottish governments have taken major pro-abortion initiatives in recent months — financing abortions for women traveling from Northern Ireland, in both jurisdictions, and the Scottish government has just announced that women in Scotland will be allowed to take the abortion pill in their own homes.”

In contrast to the United States, Britain does not consider abortion a major political issue. For all intents and purposes, the main political parties support the current legal status quo.

The last attempt to change the law on abortion was in 2008, when the House of Commons debated whether to cut the upper limit on legal abortion from 24 weeks to either 22 or 20 weeks. That attempt failed.

Edward Leigh, one pro-life member of Parliament, said afterward, “In modern Britain, the most dangerous place to be is in your mother’s womb.”


Political Debate

Veteran pro-life legislator Lord David Alton told the Register pro-abortion groups are unduly influencing the current political debate.

“This lobby is noisy and vociferous and is fighting hard to remove all legal protections for the unborn — something they euphemistically call ‘decriminalization.’ Such is the noise and media bias that, unfortunately, U.K. politicians mistake the views of these extremists as representative.”

Summing up the situation in Parliament, the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, Member of Parliament Fiona Bruce, told the Register, “The pro-life cause is by no means lost at Westminster. There is a group of MPs committed to being a voice for the unborn, but we are a small group.”

Yet, on the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act, calls for even more permissive laws around abortion have come, from, of all places, Britain’s medical profession.

In recent months, the British Medical Council and the Royal College of Gynecologists have both passed resolutions calling for the complete decriminalization of abortion. In effect, such proposals would give free reign to abortionists.


Hippocratic Oath

As in the United States, for some time now, the words of the Hippocratic Oath — “I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy” — have been a distant memory for the British medical establishment when it comes to the unborn, but this latest move has other troubling implications.

As Dr. Pravin Thevathasan, the editor of the Catholic Medical Quarterly, told the Register, “The recent calls by the BMA and the Royal College of Gynecologists [RCOG] to decriminalize abortion is an attempt to make abortion like any other surgical procedure. Professor Lesley Regan, president of the RCOG, has compared abortion to having one’s bunions removed.”

“If abortion is to be regarded as just another surgical procedure,” he added, “what will happen to the [current] legal right of conscientious objection?”

With the medical establishment firmly in favor of legalized abortion and no sign of positive change from the political class, it has been left to grassroots pro-life activists to keep alive the debate around the reality of the unborn.

One such group is the Good Counsel Network (GCN), which runs centers for pregnant women who have decided to keep their babies. On account of their work, 3,000 unborn children have been saved.

Abortion businesses lose revenue as a result of these “no-shows” and, inevitably, that has brought the pro-life group a powerful adversary.

As Clare McCullough, director and founder of Good Counsel Network, told the Register, “London’s abortion figures have been falling for the last 11 years. The abortion industry is mad because we are having an impact.”


Hostile Media Response

Sidewalk counseling outside abortion facilities by groups such as the GCN has also brought a storm of hostile media reporting on the issue. Throughout 2017, there has been extensive coverage of a concerted and organized pushback from feminist groups against anyone offering alternatives to abortion. Significantly, these feminist groups have also managed to marshal political support.

By October, that had resulted in the passage of a local ordinance that created the U.K.’s first so-called “buffer zone” around a London abortion business, where pro-lifers would gather to pray and offer counseling to women considering abortion. There appears to be a real possibility in the near future that the whole concept of prayer vigils outside such facilities will be frustrated, or even prevented, by similar local ordinances. McCullough equates the recent discussions around buffer zones and prayer vigils at them as being really a debate about free speech and says, “At the abortion centers … for those who oppose us, moving us down the road is the first step to moving us to oblivion.”

Paradoxically, these recent restrictions seem to have only galvanized pro-life groups to come together to face the challenges they pose.

As McCullough pointed out, “The issue of buffer zones and the suppression of free speech has united the movement more than anything we can recall in living memory.”

The reality remains, however, that abortion is big business in the U.K. In the past 10 years alone, £757,832,800 ($997,213,236) of taxpayers’ money has been paid to private-sector abortion doctors. It is reported that Simon Cooke, the head of the U.K.’s main private-sector abortion provider, Marie Stopes International, earns approximately four times the salary of Prime Minister Theresa May.

The political clout and the media push possible from such a well-funded industry is not to be underestimated, according to David Alton. He observed that the continuing public and political debate “is skewed by the tax-funded abortion lobby.”

Looking at the issue from any angle, the U.K. pro-life argument appears to have had little impact upon the wider public consciousness. Today, the British pro-life movement is outnumbered politically, outspent financially by pro-abortion providers, and treated with contempt by most of the media. On a human level, therefore, few would give it a prayer; perhaps, however, that’s exactly what it has left, and that should never be underestimated. Nor should the role of science in forthcoming debates be underestimated either, as Lord Alton explained: “The country is getting steadily more and more pro-life as the undeniable truth of unborn life is reaffirmed by new scientific discoveries.”

Nevertheless, given the current state of 21st-century Britain in regard to life issues, the pro-life movement has a mountain to climb in just having its arguments heard.

In their statement of regret for the 50th anniversary of legal abortion in the U.K., the bishops of England, Scotland and Wales urged those so engaged “to continue their good work.”

They concluded their statement with the hope that the 50th anniversary would be an opportunity to bring about “a new debate to change attitudes towards human life in the womb, to promote what it means to make good and authentic choices, and to protect and care for mothers and their children.”

K.V. Turley writes from London.