A successful International Pro-Life Conference 2008 at the Marriott Toronto Airport Hotel Oct. 2-4 saw some 500 people attend from coast to coast – and some from elsewhere in the world – to hear leading speakers address topics of importance in these times of challenge for human life and the family.

Conference director Yoli Singson said one young man came all the way from Taiwan, while a couple came from Mexico. She added the conference was marked by a sense of “the prayerfulness, the spirituality that’s within the (pro-life) movement. The (Catholic) Sisters of Life were very visible; in fact, they took care of our liturgical services … We had two bishops who came to celebrate masses. There were several priests who came to concelebrate. We had two masses a day.”

For non-Catholics, a prayer room was established and Singson said “quite a few” people availed themselves of the facility. The conference was hosted by Campaign Life Coalition Toronto and sponsored by Campaign Life Coalition, LifeCanada and the International Right to Life Federation. Significant contributions were also made by Niagara Region Right to Life.

The international conference was last in Toronto in 2002, with the last national one taking place in Moncton, N.B. last year. Singson said it is yet to be established where the national conference will take place next year.

She said this year’s international conference came about after plans for an International Right to Life Federation board meeting in India fell through. Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes then stepped up and offered to host it in Toronto. “It became a true blessing for us because the members of the IRTLF board are experts in their fields and they came in and shared their expertise,” said Singson.

Audio recordings of the various sessions should be available in the near future. Check the website at www.campaignlifecoalition.com for updates or call 1-800-730-5358 for the latest information.

Here are short summaries of some of the sessions:

Opening Session

Hughes, LifeCanada president Joanne Byfield and IRTLF president Dr. Jack Willke welcomed attendees on the conference’s opening night. Byfield said there are signs of hope in the fact that pro-abortionists are becoming more hysterical and fanatical through measures such as trying to ban pro-life ads and pro-life student groups on campuses, getting Henry Morgentaler appointed to the Order of Canada and vociferously opposing the commonsense Unborn Victims of Violence bill.

Willke outlined how he met with U.S presidential candidate John McCain on the embryonic stem cell research issue. He also spoke of the Sarah Palin phenomenon, noting that as a woman who walks the talk, she underwent an almost overwhelming amount of vindictiveness from the pro-abortion press. Yet, for all the attacks, she came out stronger than ever.

Hughes took time to introduce some of the organizations and individuals attending the conference and quoted U.S. Priests for Life national director Father Frank Pavone, who spoke of the necessity to maintain the authority of the pro-life message being delivered and the integrity of the messengers who deliver it.

Alluding to the then-upcoming Canadian federal election – and the betrayal of the human life cause by Prime Minister Stephen Harper – Hughes quipped that the pro-life movement was on the scene long before Harper came along and will continue to be so long after he is gone.

The screening of a short pro-life Doorpost Film Project movie produced by a young man closed the opening session.

Visible Religious Presence in the Secular World

The Sisters of Life, who were present during most of the conference at Eucharistic Adoration, told of the experiences their religious order has had in New York helping pregnant women and said they would like to provide similar support to those facing crisis pregnancies in Canada. The Sisters are looking for volunteers to provide practical support to teens and single women during pregnancy and in the first months after a child is born.

Political Panel

Former Liberal MP Pat O’Brien and retiring Liberal MP Tom Wappel gave their impressions of the political landscape. Wappel, described by Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes as “the dean of the pro-lifers in caucus,” said he was proud to be giving his final speech as an MP before a pro-life crowd.

Neither was upbeat about the immediate prospects for pro-lifers, considering the intolerance towards pro-life initiatives demonstrated by the party leaders. O’Brien shared that he considered joining the Conservatives in 2005 during the same-sex “marriage” debate, but did not see any commitment to the social conservative cause from then-opposition leader Stephen Harper. Looking forward to the election that was held just 10 days after the conference, Wappel observed that “life issues did not even rate a mention … not even a potshot to demonize Stephen Harper.”

The fix to this situation, both said, was for pro-lifers to become involved in the political process. Wappel warned, “If you are not involved, someone else will be.”

O’Brien urged people to “vote your principles,” but said this is the bare minimum. He added pro-lifers should be more involved in the nomination process, because it is there that smaller groups of individuals dedicated to a cause can make a big difference; nomination meetings ma be decided by a few dozen party members, as opposed to the tens of thousands of people who vote in a general election.

Creating a Culture of Life Around the Globe

John Smeaton, national director of the U.K.’s Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, spoke about his country’s proposed horrifying Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill. He said Prime Minister Gordon Brown is promoting the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos and the creation of embryos for training purposes. Currently, the pro-life side does not have enough MPs to defeat the bill, he said.

Other challenges are posed by the criminalization of pro-life crisis pregnancy services and the denial of conscience rights to pharmacists. “We have to build communities, a peaceful pro-life resistance movement and recognition of the value of (the Catholic papal encyclical) Humanae vitae,” said Smeaton.

Bert Dorenbos, founder and president of Cry for Life in the Netherlands, noted that a major gender problem is emerging in India, where five million abortions take place every year – bride burnings are taking place and the dignity of women is at stake. Local pro-lifers are expressing disappointment at the lack of attention to this problem. And enormous problems exist elsewhere in the Far East, such as China’s one-child policy, said Dorenbos.

Lech and Ewa Kowalewski, co-founders of the board of directors of the Polish Federation of Pro-Life Movements, noted a majority of Poles support the pro-life laws that are existent in their country today, imperfect though those laws are. However, the country is facing increasing pressure from the European Union, which is trying to depict Poland as violating “human rights.”

While the situation is stable, the Council of the European Union wants every European woman to have access to an abortion. This is despite the fact that entire nations are dying out from a birth dearth.

Willke, filling in for Philippine representatives who couldn’t attend the conference, described how international pro-abortion pressure is being brought to bear on that Asian country because of its growing population. The Packard Foundation has been particularly odious, he said, in funding full-page newspaper advertisements in support of abortion and birth control measures.

Dorenbos had a few words regarding the situation in his home country: “Watch out for the Netherlands. Watch out.” He said tolerance has been exchanged for evil there. “The Christian church is persecuted more today than ever before … We are seen as evil people, by not being pro-abortion.”

Yet, he said, “miracles are still happening” and reported on a Nuremberg Trials-style initiative taking place Dec. 10 to shine a spotlight on those guilty of crimes against humanity with respect to abortion and abortifacient substances.

Effective Activism

Stephanie Gray of the Centre for Bioethical Reform and Rosemary Connell of Show the Truth made presentations on the need to awaken society to the truth about abortion through graphic images. Gray said that to “expose the injustice, we must show the victims.”

When Doctors Decide Who Will Live and Who Will Die

Dr. Sheila Harding, dean of medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, spoke of the changes in medicine and the reaction of today’s medical students to those changes. She diagnosed the death of Hippocratic medicine, which is focused on patients, but is being replaced by doctor-centered medicine. Harding said today, all the wrong questions are being asked and cited as an example the fact that too often, physicians make decisions about the value of a person’s life rather than the value of a particular intervention to the patient. She said that doctors should not be called upon to make these decisions, but rather to help the patient’s own discernment by providing information, not judgements.

Harding related the stories of medical students, residents and young doctors (with names and details changed to protect confidentiality) as they deal with abortion and end-of-life issues as medical practitioners. The students and young doctors are alarmed at the callousness with which veteran doctors deal with death and aborted babies and the euphemisms that are used to describe the indefensible.

Harding lamented the direction of the medical profession and said that increasingly, religious students are having a difficult time getting into med schools because universities are all but systemically denying even qualified students entry. She said there might eventually need to be a “counter-cultural, pro-life parallel health care system” – for both patients and practitioners.

Media and Culture

National Post columnist Father Raymond de Souza alluded to great media thinkers including Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan in analyzing how images are becoming more important than arguments. “The media world in which we live is not conducive to listening to the moral voice that may constrain us,” he said. “We’re moving to a visual culture, one not conducive to arguments and ideas … This is a problem for the church and moral argument. The church has been shaped by the written word.”

The emphasis on visuals is why many pro-life arguments have been of no effect, said de Souza. “Argumentation has less relevance … Emotions are persuasive, where arguments are not.” He said since our culture is being shaped by images, successful pro-life arguments are using this avenue. Moral arguments thus become the end, rather than the means. “We need to change to something more adapted to our culture,” he concluded.

LifeSite News editor John-Henry Westen outlined a number of the successes achieved by his online news service, including the removal of dissident Catholic priest Father Raymond Gravel as an MP in Parliament. He said LifeSite attempts to present stories that enable people to put forth through reason the truths of the pro-life argument. It also presents stories and events that the “mainstream” media refuse to report, such as the annual National March for Life in Ottawa.

The Morgentaler ?Disorder’ of Canada

Phil Horgan, president of the Catholic Civil Rights League, described the legal action being taken by Windsor retired police officer and Order of Canada recipient Frank Chauvin. Chauvin has launched a suit against the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, for her role in the advisory council’s decision to put forward abortionist Henry Morgentaler’s name for Canada’s highest civilian honour (see details of this story on page 2).

The Law, Human Rights and Freedom of Speech

Father Alphonse de Valk, editor of Catholic Insight magazine, summarized how his publication has been the subject of a series of attacks by homosexual activists, culminating in a human rights complaint that was dismissed by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, but is being appealed to the Federal Court.

He said the problems with the current human rights system include the facts that truth plays no role, no witnesses are needed, one is guilty until proven innocent and there is no proof required of cause and effect. Quoting Ezra Levant, he characterized human rights enforcers as “opinion sniffers with police power.”

He put forth six observations in conclusion: (1) Don’t take the situation with indifference. (2) Change the law, because secularism is aggressively anti-Christian. (3) The victims of yesterday are the bullies of today – homosexuals are now “doing it” to Christians. (4) Because of human rights intimidation, self-censorship has become the norm. (5) We must emphasize what are true, as opposed to bogus, human rights. (6) Nothing is lost in the sight of God.

Phil Horgan gave a rundown of numerous cases that have been of concern to Christians and conscientious Canadians of all sorts, including the court upholding of abortion site “bubble zones” in B.C., ongoing actions of human rights commissions and threats to the conscience rights of Ontario physicians. “The next case is always around the corner,” he remarked. Other troubling trends he cited included the banning of campus pro-life groups and the dominance of individual rights over religious rights.

Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the U.S. Thomas More Law Centre, recalled how he took the words of the late Pope John Paul II as a call to arms against the culture of death. “There is a war being waged for the souls of our nations,” he said. “Our courts have become the most dominant institutions in shaping the direction of our culture.”

He ran down a list of successes his organization has achieved and suggested a similar organization of lawyers may be needed in Canada to defend the religious liberties of Christians, family values and the sanctity of human life. “We cannot sit on the sideline,” he said. “You and I are supposed to be part of the church militant.”

Concluding, he quoted C.S. Lewis – “the spirit of compromise covers up cowardice” – and Pope Leo XIII – “nothing emboldens the wicked so greatly as the lack of courage on the part of the good.”

The Link Between Abortion and Slavery

The link between abortion and slavery is one which the pro-life movement has visited on many occasions. The recent release of the movie Amazing Grace about the life of William Wilberforce, whose tireless efforts along with other abolitionists in England led to the end of slavery in that country, gave pro-lifers a fresh opportunity to appreciate the labours of activists from another generation. It also shows their determination in the face of many defeats in Parliament. This is encouraging to pro-lifers who have fought long and hard in our own Parliament.

A clip from the movie was shown to the participants at the conference. One viewer referred to the film as being about “pro-lifers in funny clothes.” Dr. Jack Willke, author of the book Abortion and Slavery, spoke about the fight against slavery from the American perspective and the need to understand that although the victim is different, it is the lack of acknowledgement of the humanity of the person in both the abortion and slavery issues that links the two causes. After his talk, 100 copies of Dr. Willke’s book were sold out in a matter of minutes.

International Panel

In a panel discussion, Bert Dorenbos and Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, addressed current issues in euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide, with Schadenberg focusing on the November referendum in Washington state dealing with the question of legalizing physician-assisted suicide.

Theology of the Body

Cale Clark, a lay pastoral assistant at St. Justin the Martyr Parish in Unionville, Ont., closed the conference with a presentation on the Theology of the Body – the teachings of the late Pope John Paul II on the respectful and life-affirming ways in which we treat ourselves and others through the proper use of God’s gift of sex.