The pro-life movement is on the rise in many European countries. Marches with thousands of attendees were held in Madrid, Rome, and Paris, while other Western European nations, long purported to be bastions of so-called progressivism, have also seen some surprising signs of life.

In Munster, Germany in 2011, a pro-life march of  200 participants carrying white crosses took place. A police escort was required to clear the way for the marchers and separate them from homosexual activists who were throwing condoms at the marchers. In 2009, a similar march of 1,300 participants occurred in Berlin.

Even the Netherlands is witnessing a growing pro-life movement. In 2011, the Dutch March for Life at The Hague drew more than 800 people, the largest number of participants in the 18 years such marches have taken place. In 2010, Cry for Life, a Dutch pro-life organization, constructed a display of 30,000 models of 10-week unborn children at the square next to government buildings at The Hague.

In Brussels, Belgium, an annual student-organized march for life has grown in number from 1,700 in 2010 (its first year) to 3,400 in 2012.

Asked about the growing pro-life activism, Hilary White, the Rome correspondent for LifeSiteNews, responded in an email: “being somewhat aloof from the churches, the Europeans seem to be starting … from a more solid moral and intellectual foundation, one that simply asserts the fundamental principal that it is wrong to kill a human being, and decidedly wrong for countries to have enshrined that institutionalised killing in law and medicine.” White suspects that such action could have been inspired by pro-life activism in North America and access to a wider variety of information via the internet. “As the children of the Soixante-Huitard generation (1968 French radicals), they have had a more objective view of its harms. Their parents are divorced, they are nearly all only-children, they have seen the institutions of marriage and family being eroded down to mere ghosts of what they once were.”

Eastern Europe, left with high abortion rates and demographic decline following decades of Soviet rule, is in no means left out of the pro-life ascendancy.

In Belarus, ruled dictatorially by Alexander Lukashenko, the Open Hearts Foundation is helping to make a difference. In 2010, its members attended a pro-life festival in Moscow, talked to participants of family pilgrimages in Braslav, gave talks about life to audiences of around 4,000 in two Belarus churches, ran prayer and fasting campaigns, and helped to organize a pro-life and pro-family conference in Gomel.

Although voted down by the Polish parliament by a thin margin, the success of a citizens’ bill proposing to ban all abortions shows the strength of pro-life opinion in Poland. The sponsors of the bill had to collect 100,000 signatures in three months to have the bill go before parliament. Within two weeks, they already had 600,000. In Poland, abortion is already illegal unless the woman’s life or health is endangered, the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act, or if the child is seriously deformed, yet a grassroots campaign was almost successful in getting abortion fully recriminalized.

Recently, there have been several Marches for Life and Family across the country organized by the Foundation for the National Day for Life and the Christian Culture Association. In 2011, they were held in Szczecin (with an attendance of 15,000), Warsaw, Gdansk, Czestochowa, Rzeszow, and Torun. The marches were planned in 49 cities for 2012. There was an attendance of about 2,000 in Warsaw and 3,000 in Bydgoszcz, with tens of thousands of people marching in total, according to the organizers.

In Hungary, where there are no real restrictions on abortion, the pro-life and pro-family government of Viktor Orban has been initiating reforms. Article 2 of the new constitution passed on April 25, 2011 declares that “the life of the foetus shall be protected from the moment of conception.” Also, using funds from the European Union, the Hungarian government sponsored a national pro-life campaign of posters showing an unborn child asking for the chance to live. “Hungarian society isn’t ready for the prohibition of abortion, like Poland for example,” said Miklos Soltesz, the Hungarian minister for families and youth, to Hu LaLa, a Hungarian pro-life group. “That isn’t what we are seeking. We want to insist on the importance of life.”

Yet, the situation is not so optimistic in all of Eastern Europe. In the Czech Republic, a CVVM poll released in 2012 revealed that almost 75 per cent of Czechs believe that a woman has the “right” to abortion. Although abortion rates fell by almost two thirds from 1970 to 2007, this was due to growing use of contraceptives and intrauterine devices according to the Czech News Agency. Nevertheless, 2,000 people took part in the 2012 March for Life in Prague.

Britain, meanwhile, is home to the oldest pro-life organization in the world, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. SPUC holds multiple pro-life demonstrations, lobbies parliament, acts as an intervener in legal proceedings, hosts national and international conferences, produces educational materials, and lobbies at the United Nations and European Parliament.

Currently, SPUC is backing an appeal by two Glasgow midwives, Mary Doogan and Connie Wood, into a court and hospital decision that requires the two midwives to supervise other midwives involved in abortions. SPUC also held a campaign against clauses in the Children, Schools, and Families Bill that would subject primary school children to explicit sex education and might promote abortion and contraception in all secondary schools. In April 2010, the controversial clauses were eliminated from the bill.

Nevertheless, pro-life legislation repealing the gains of the pro-abortion side over the years does not seem to be close to passing in Britain.

The situation has also been undermined by the stance of other pro-life groups and some clergy. In May 2008, Passion for Life, a branch of the Parliamentary All-Party Pro-life Group, sent postcards asking churches and pro-life supporters to ask MPs to lower the gestational limit on abortion, stating, “abortion should be rare.” This conflicts with the position held by SPUC and many pro-lifers that abortion should be completely illegal.

Moreover, in the same month, Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nichols told a BBC radio show that embryos are not morally equal to adults and that Catholic teaching is ambiguous about this, directly contradicting the Church’s teaching on life.

John Smeaton, SPUC’s national director, has been critical of Catholic bishops who are not vocal about life issues. In 2010, he told a Canadian pro-life conference, “countless millions of unborn children are being killed each year and the policy of very many Catholic bishops is contributing largely to this deplorable situation.”

Poland, in fact, underlines Smeaton’s message of the importance of a vocal pro-life clergy. The Polish Catholic Church provided a strong centre of moral opposition during communist rule, and even now bishops and priests are unafraid to warn the public against the evils of abortion and promote the dignity of life.

Britain does not have an obvious marker for growing pro-life success such as an annual well-attended march for life, but its pro-life movement has done much to stop the encroachment of more anti-life and anti-family measures.

Unlike in other Western European nations, where vibrant pro-life activism is in its nascent stages, the British pro-life movement has been around longer, but many politicians and the overall public sphere seems to be resisting its message. For instance, there is an alarmingly high rate of repeat abortions among teenagers, implying a high level of social acceptability for the procedure. The public’s level of acceptance towards abortion had a lot of time to grow since the Abortion Act of 1967, which legalized abortion up to 28 weeks gestation and covered the costs under the National Health Service. Perhaps it is also a manifestation of the lack of personal responsibility and moral compass brought about, in part, by increased reliance on the government in all areas of life. But this, too, comes back to Smeaton’s point about religious leadership.

Yet for both the British pro-life movement and its counterparts throughout Europe, there are signs of hope that they will continue to educate the public about the humanity of the unborn and one day make the prohibition of abortion a popular political issue, with or without ecclesiastical leadership; but as the new pro-life activism is demonstrating, it is easier when bishops and other religious leaders are on side.