Three Decades of Abortion Hasn't Quivered British ProLifers

DUBLIN, Ireland—The oldest pro-life organization in Britain and Ireland is the Church. Until 1967 legislation in both countries reflected the view of the majority of the population that abortion was wrong and ought to be outlawed.


In both countries, performing an abortion was a criminal offense under the 1861 Offenses against the Person Act. It continued to apply in Irish law following the end of British rule in 1922. But British law changed in 1938, following the prosecution of a gynecologist, Aleck Bourne, who terminated the pregnancy of a rape victim. In the case, Rex v. Bourne, the jury upheld the view that an abortion could lawfully be carried out to prevent the mother from becoming “a physical and mental wreck.”

Following the Bourne judgment, a move was made to amend British statute law, and the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill was put before Parliament. A campaign against the bill was started, lead by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC). The campaign marked the birth of the modern political pro-life movement in the British Isles.

Ironically, Aleck Bourne was a founding member of the society, appalled that his landmark court case was being used to justify legislation that would eventually lead to abortion on demand in Britain. Despite SPUC's efforts, the bill was passed in the form of the 1967 Abortion Act. Since then 3 million unborn babies have been killed by abortion in the United Kingdom — a figure a thousand times greater than the number killed in the Northern Irish conflict.

Perhaps because of the violence in Northern Ireland, people there value life more and they have resisted a liberal abortion regime. The current British government, however, plans to extend the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, against the will of the province's majority. Resisting this threat is a priority for SPUC and other UK pro-life organizations.

At present, SPUC's main activity is lobbying parliament and organizing the all-party pro-life group of MPs and Lords. It is also active in campaigning against euthanasia, in vitro fertilization and embryo experimentation, and in running schools education campaigns. It is a non-denominational organization, but has denominational subsections. Its Muslim division is one of the most active branches of SPUC in the United Kingdom. SPUC's current annual budget is roughly £1 million Sterling (about $1.7 million).

The second largest UK pro-life group is LIFE, founded by husband and wife Jack and Nuala Scarrisbrick in 1970. LIFE began as a charitable organization and has 140 LIFE Centers providing non-directive counseling to women with crisis pregnancies. It has 43 LIFE Houses that provide shelter and support for women who, despite difficult circumstances, keep their babies.

LIFE runs two baby hospices and is planning to open a third shortly. One of LIFE's main activities is manning a 24-hour crises telephone helpline, and every year 8,000 people seeking help contact LIFE. It also offers pro-life fertility treatments and family planning services. LIFE receives no government funding; Labor Party sources, however, have indicated that might soon change. At present it has 32,000 dues paying members and an annual budget of about £1 million. Recently, Pope John Paul II named the Scarrisbricks as a Knight and a Dame of the Order of St. Gregory for their pro-life work. Other pro-life organizations in Britain include CARE, whose membership is mainly Evangelical Protestant; Alert, which campaigns against euthanasia specifically; and Doctors for Life, which monitors and develops medical ethics in the fields of embryology and euthanasia.

One reason the PLAC was formed was that they believed SPUC in Ireland did not have sufficient public relations and lobbying expertise.

In Ireland, the oldest modern pro-life group is also named the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC), though it is separate from the UK organization of the same name. The organization was founded by Dr. Mary Lucey shortly after the enactment of the 1967 Abortion Act in Britain when she was approached by a pregnant girl seeking information about abortions in the United Kingdom. SPUC in Ireland is mainly a campaigning and education group, leaving counseling and the care of women in crises pregnancy to CURA (Latin for “care"), an agency of the Irish hierarchy. CURA, which was founded in 1977, has 14 counseling centers in Ireland and runs a telephone helpline. Last year, it dealt with 9,939 telephone inquiries and 4,016 personal callers, and offered 146 women post-abortion counseling. Its main source of income is the Eastern Health Board, but it is also supported by the Irish hierarchy. CURA organizes educational talks in schools, but is not involved in political lobbying.

Ireland's other main respect life organization is the Pro-Life Campaign (PLC), which is lobbying for a new constitutional amendment that will fully protect the unborn child's right to life. The PLC's mission is broadly the same as that of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) which was formed in 1981 with the specific aim of amending Ireland's constitution to protect the unborn.

One reason the PLAC was formed was that they believed SPUC in Ireland did not have sufficient public relations and lobbying expertise. Many of the PLAC's members were already senior political figures in Irish society when they formed the organization.

They were successful in their aim. When following a referendum in 1983, a new amendment was inserted into the Irish constitution stating: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” Following this victory the PLAC was formally dissolved. SPUC in Ireland remained active and in 1985 it secured a High Court injunction against two Dublin clinics and two university student unions that were providing abortion referral information to Irish women seeking to terminate their pregnancies in Britain.

While abortion was illegal in Ireland, hundreds, if not thousands of women, were traveling to abortion clinics in Britain.

This situation was highlighted in 1992 following public outcry at a decision by Ireland's police, the Garda, to prevent a 14-year-old rape victim from traveling to Britain for an abortion. In what became known as the “X” case, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1983 amendment allowed a woman to have an abortion in cases where suicide was threatened if the pregnancy continued.

This court decision led to the formation of Youth Defense, an organization criticized by the Catholic hierarchy for its tactic of picketing the homes and offices of pro-choice politicians and doctors. Following the “X” case, a second pro-life referendum was held. Three questions were put to the Irish people: They voted again against legalizing abortion; in favor of legalizing information about abortion services overseas; and in favor of the right to travel abroad when seeking an abortion.

In 1993, when another young rape victim became pregnant, the High Court ruled in the “C” case that, while in the care of social services, a 13-year-old girl could be taken to England by social workers and her pregnancy could be terminated at taxpayers’ expense. The tensions between the Pro-Life Campaign (the reformed PLAC) and Youth Defense were highlighted when a PLC spokesman, Denis Murphy, claimed this year that Youth Defense's militant tactics had contributed to the death of the 13-year-old's unborn child.

Youth Defense countered by saying the PLC had done little to save the unborn children in either the “X” case or the “C” case. Youth Defense say that it was precisely because of the lack of pro-life activity at the time of the “X” case in 1992 that they decided to form their organization.

It is often said in Ireland that the first item on the agenda of any new political organization is the split. So it's not surprising to find divisions between two new pro-life organizations in the country, Human Life International Ireland and Family and Life. HLI was set up in 1994 by its American parent Human Life International and employed Peter Scully, who had been prominent in Youth Defense, as its director.

In November 1996, however, Scully broke with the organization claiming its work in Ireland was being interfered with by Americans. HLI sought an injunction against Scully seeking access to their former offices and their property, in the building in which Scully also resides and runs his new organization. In the event, an out-of-court settlement was reached with Scully receiving an undisclosed sum from HLI.

Since his departure, HLI has not been as active in Ireland, though it organizes a major pro-life conference every year. All five of Ireland's pro-life campaigning organizations — SPUC, the Pro-Life Campaign, Youth Defense, HLI, and Family and Life — are campaigning for a new pro-life amendment to the constitution to reflect the opposition of the Irish. It remains to be seen if they can work as a united front.

Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.