One of our contributing editors recently paid a visit to England. What follows is his account of what he found there.
In the country of Warwickshire, England, about 25 smiles away from Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford, is the spa or health resort of Leamington. My wife and I visited it on May 31, not to taste the waters or swim in them but to visit the headquarters of a British right-to-life organization, called simply LIFE. It was founded in Leamington by J.A. Scarisbrick, a distinguished historian who teaches at Warwick University a few miles away, and his wife Nuala. The impression we received from them was of a well-run and vigorous organization, which is making its mark on the English scene and may have some things to teach us – just as we may have some things to teach it.
As in the U.S. and Canada, in Britain there is a range of groups dealing with pregnancy issues which have to be differentiated from each other. Birthright in England has nothing to do with the Birthright Louise Summerhill founded in Toronto; it does research into matters connected with reproduction and it enjoys the patronage of Princess Diana, but it is definitely not opposed to abortion. Another prominent group is the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (or SPUC for short). But from the beginning it did not entirely live up to its name; it included doctors, says Professor Scarisbrick, who were willing to perform abortions for health reasons or if the baby was deformed. Still another group, Lifeline, is much smaller and less significant than the others.
In a sense the organizational problems LIFE faces are simpler than those confronting let us say, Canada’s Campaign Life Coalition: though the population of the United Kingdom is more than twice that of Canada, the distances are much smaller and the possibility of a closer knit organization much greater. It is a fairly simple matter for it to bring members and delegates of regional groups together for think tanks on weekends, and for its national committee of 30 to hold meetings.
Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, founder of the Cheshire Homes, and a LIFE patron, once said, “You must never grow too rich.” According to Professor Scarisbrick, LIFE is doing its best to live up to this admonition; it lurches from one financial crisis to another. Still its offices are much more luxurious than those of Campaign Life Coalition and The Interim, and its central corridor is lined with boxes only on one side, not both. Its publications, mostly on coated paper and with good use of color, have a very professional look.
LIFE has 240 chapters around the country, 105 branch offices, and 30,000 members. It has a recruiting drive on at the moment, which is beginning to produce results; there are now a thousand members in Coventry, for example. The major problems, and greatest challenges, are in the cities – London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds. Its states goal is to have a big office in the heart of the capital, with a ring of offices in outer London. “All of this is a big challenge to everyone concerned – financially and otherwise,” says its new bulletin, “But London is still the abortion capital of Western Europe and urgently needs all that we can provide in caring as well as educational and political effort.”
LIFE prides itself on being absolutist; it makes no compromise on the question of abortion. It has a bill all prepared which begins, “The Abortion Act of 1967 is hereby repealed.” However, if it could save ten thousand lives it would do so – for the intrinsic value of these lives and as a step in the right direction. For this reason, it strongly supported David Alton’s proposal to reduce the 1967 abortion limit from 28 weeks to 18, and its members were widely disappointed when this bill was mangled beyond recognition in committee and then talked out in the House of Commons.
Scarisbrick said that the Alton has made a considerable impact and moved abortion into the centre of political discussion; he has also made the pro-life movement discover its own strength. He and other MPs who side with him promise to keep reintroducing the legislation every year. Mrs. Thatcher has said that her government is seriously considering a limitation on late-term abortions. Her “compromise” would be for 24 weeks, but Alton says, “Fine, we’ll amend it.”
LIFE has three objectives – education, political activity to secure repeal of the abortion law, and the offer of a positive alternative to abortion. In other words, it deals as one unit with what in Canada is handled by three separate groups: politics, education and pregnancy counseling.
“LIFE cares for you,” says one of its pamphlets, and the pamphlet describes a wide range of services – free pregnancy testing, accommodation and advice on housing, counseling (pregnancy and post abortion), advice and practical follow-up care.
It now operates 55 residences, leased from local authorities, as shelters for girls both before and after they have had their babies; in fact there is a National Caring Officer, Mrs. Anne Dibb, who is in charge of this part of the LIFE operation. Once they houses are established, they accommodate four or five girls on average, each paying her share of the upkeep through the social benefits she receives, so that the homes are self-sustaining. The girls are treated as adults; each home has a volunteer housemother (who ordinarily does not live in), but these women encourage the girls in their charge to feel that they are responsible for their own decisions.
Two further aspects of LIFE operations are worth mentioning. One is that is officers have even less respect for the judicial system than we have in Canada. For them, the trial of Dr. Leonard Arthur following the deliberate death of a Down’s syndrome baby in 1980 was decisive. Dr. Arthur was acquitted by a jury, following a judge’s summing up which LIFE regards as disgraceful: “Though Mr. Justice Farquharson took pains to explain the law to the jury and to try to set out the complex medical evidence, his summing-up failed to set out the central issues, contained much irrelevance and confusion, and was flawed by a major misdirection to the jury.”
Second, LIFER is interdenominational, gets much of its support from people with religious affiliation such as Catholics, yet often fails to get it from those who ought to give it. Professor Scarisbrick says that, for example, it gets life encouragement from Catholics who have been to the major Catholic public schools such as Downside, Ampleforth and Stonyhurst. They seem to have little understanding of what it means to be a Christian; if they join anything, it is the golf club. There are some affiliated groups called “Evangelicals for Life” and “LIFE Anglicans,” though from members of the Anglican communion support and encouragement are hardly overwhelming. Yet the LIFE Anglican pamphlet points out that the 1983 General Synod, meeting at York, passed a resolution calling for amendment of the 1967 Abortion Act. Though a later paragraph approves of abortion in certain circumstances, in the first section of this resolution the synod stated its belief.
“That all human life, including life developing in the womb, is created by God in His own image and is, therefore, to be nurtured, supported and protected.”
It could hardly be better put. If the Anglicans and members of other Christian denominations really believed this and acted upon it, there would not be 180,000 abortions a year in England, and LIFE itself might be put out of business.