Fighting for Life in Europe

The pro-life movement in Europe seems to be growing, but a movement spread out over many countries and languages has its challenges.

LONDON — As the pro-life movement in the United States gathers momentum, drawing an increasing number of young people to the struggle to protect life, could such success be repeated in Europe?

Although sympathy for the pro-life movement is on the increase, the situation in Europe is more complex and arguably more challenging, say Catholic leaders and pro-life advocates.

One notable weakness is the lack of a single, unified movement, perhaps unsurprising when the European Union is made up of 27 autonomous member states with 23 official languages (the Council of Europe, a body that seeks to develop common and democratic principles based on European rights treaties, comprises 47 member states, including Russia).

Most countries, therefore, have several pro-life organizations operating within them, although a few cross-border alliances have emerged.

“In general, the pro-life movements in Europe share the same goals and cooperate in a very loose way,” explained Joseph Meaney, the Rome-based director of international coordination for Human Life International. “Catholic groups have a common point of reference in the Pontifical Council for the Family.”

A number of these organizations have been established for some years. The U.K.’s Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) claims to be the world’s first organization in what has become known as the pro-life movement. Founded in the 1960s, it surfaced about the time of the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalized abortion in Britain. A similarly well-established organization is the Movimento per la Vita in Italy, founded in the 1970s.

But the diversity of the groups means that effective collaboration can often be elusive. “There is no coordinated European pro-life movement, and there ought to be,” said Lord Alton of Liverpool, a veteran U.K. pro-life campaigner. He sees greater cooperation existing in the political sphere, where individual Catholic politicians have formed fairly effective networks. This is a “loose arrangement,” he said, which is increasingly gaining “solidity” but needs “resources and cohesion.”

Meaney agrees that pro-life groups “tend not to be very cohesive,” nor do they generally have the same tactics or methodologies. He says they roughly divide into two groups: those primarily oriented towards preventing abortions through counseling and services and others oriented towards political change. A smaller number focus on educating and supporting young people and university students.

The movement also faces two other significant obstacles. The first is in the political sphere: The majority of Europe’s politicians have no wish to see abortion ended. Pro-life campaigners say this is closely tied to secularization and the breakdown of sexual morality in Europe over the past 40-50 years.

European Parliamentarian Nirj Deva believes it is “growing militant intolerance against Christians in the public sphere” rather than lack of unity in the pro-life movement which has emerged as the main obstacle. It’s the principal reason he recently helped found the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a worldwide network of parliamentarians promoting human dignity and the conception-until-natural-death respect for life. Like a number of other pro-life campaigners, Deva is keen that each group specialize in its respective fields and avoids duplication.

But the second obstacle comes from within the movement’s own ranks. Lord Alton is critical of certain activists who, he says, are “disdainful of political work, which requires an incrementalist approach.” In his view, these groups spend their time and resources attacking those working for change, including Church leaders, rather than assisting them: “They destroy coalitions and alliances and attack anyone who does not share their — and my — view that all life should be protected at every stage.”

As an example, he refers to groups or individuals who have been pro-abortion yet oppose euthanasia and other anti-life legislation. Alton and others managed to form alliances with them, leading to victories in two major votes opposing assisted suicide in the British Parliament.

“I would, of course, prefer that they adhered to the beliefs set out in Evangelium Vitae, but rather than refusing to work with them or attacking them, we should take people where they are and build on that,” he said. “The lesson of the movement to abolish slavery, led by [William] Wilberforce, was that coalitions had to be carefully crafted, and one step was taken at a time,” said Lord Alton.

However, John Smeaton, SPUC’s director, is one pro-life leader who doesn’t hesitate to take issue with government or Christian leadership when he believes it is warranted.

“As in many parts of the Western world, pro-life groups throughout Europe are hindered by church leaders, including Catholic Church leaders who, at worst, cooperate with the anti-life lobby and who, at best, fail to give effective witness to the gospel of life,” said Smeaton.

Yet, despite these challenges, Europe’s pro-life movement recently witnessed some notable successes. Smeaton said he sees “evidence of growing cohesiveness,” and, as an example, he cites SPUC’s work with continental pro-life groups to successfully reverse a threat to conscientious objection to abortion, tabled in the Council of Europe last October. He also says SPUC has worked with other European pro-life groups to jointly intervene in cases at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

Meaney says Human Life International is “more hopeful” about Europe than it has been for a long time, mainly because of pro-life reforms in the former communist countries. He pointed to the new Hungarian Constitution, adopted earlier this year, which includes a provision for the protection of unborn life “from conception” and the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.

Russia and other former communist countries are also looking to address their demographic problems. “Limiting abortion is an obvious way to do this,” Meaney said.

But without a single group, Europe’s pro-life movement naturally lacks a unified strategy; what propels them, therefore, differs according to geography or specialization.

For Smeaton, the movement’s impetus comes from a “mixture of unique national factors and universal and Europe-wide political factors, such as the militantly pro-abortion position of the U.S. government and U.N. bodies and the strongly anti-life European Union and European Commission.”

Lord Alton sees an urgency to uncover the hard and disturbing facts about abortion, euthanasia and embryology — facts that are too often covered up by public servants and medical professionals.

HLI’s emphasis is on the conversion of hearts through prayer vigils and spiritual events — and to support the Church’s pro-life activities in these nations. In particular, it is encouraging faithful Catholic families to be generous in the number of children they have (Meaney says the impetus for this came from the U.S., where faithful Catholics and Protestants have been having many more children than liberals and agnostics for almost two generations).

As one of the leading pro-life members of the European Parliament, Anna Záborská is trying to deepen the public’s conscience in upholding the importance of life, marriage and the family. The advantage of this approach, says Záborská, is that it encourages a “much broader discussion.”

She admires U.S. pro-life leaders like Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and non-governmental organizations such as the Family Research Council and The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. She also welcomes an increasing number of marches for life that are appearing in Europe, inspired by the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, the tendency to look to the United States for answers appears to be growing, particularly the trend of focusing more on the local level, such as trying to make life uncomfortable for local abortion providers. One example arose in early September when two British members of Parliament tried to introduce legislation, albeit clumsily, that would strip abortion providers of counseling pregnant mothers to abort their children. The bill was not without its flaws, but, although heavily defeated in parliament, the government supported the “spirit” of the bill and pledged to consider the proposal further.

"We lost the battle but we have won the war," said Nadine Dorries, a co-sponsor of the bill.

It is a far cry from the achievements of the American pro-life movement, but it could provide lessons in creating more effective strategies for pro-life groups in Europe. The arguments in support of the movement are, of course, compelling, and when debated maturely and rationally, they are irrefutable.

As Lord Alton reminded the movement in a recent speech: “The killing of children in the womb is the most unconscionable crime against humanity any civilization has ever faced. It is the defining issue of our age; it is the pre-eminent human-rights question. There can be no neutrals; no quiet life; no going back. And, believe me, there will be sacrifices. As William Wilberforce once said, ‘You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.’”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.

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