SPUC revisited

A few years ago I was riled into writing about SPUC in less than complimentary terms following some less than charitable remarks about Catholic Voices, the organisation of which I am proud to be a part, not being orthodox enough. Writing on his blog back in 2011, John Smeaton, Director of SPUC called for the voices of ‘real Catholics’ instead of our appeasing liberal heterodox ones.

Admittedly I was less than charitable in my reply, my irritation and indignation fuelled in part by pregnancy hormones. The accusations of heterodoxy and attacks upon Catholic Voices coming from John Smeaton, did cease, for which I think we are all grateful – after all when it came to the thorny topic of the redefinition of marriage, it was clear that we were all on the same side.

And when it comes to the aims of SPUC, I think we’re all on their side, we all wish for a successful pro-life lobby group in this country. It is very disappointing for ordinary Catholics in the pews that by and large our leadership seems to be quiet on the subject of abortion, with a few notable exceptions and that there seems to be no specifically Catholic pro-life organisation, which is why SPUC occupy a weird hybrid position, ostensibly being a secular lobby group and not a registered charity, with no official Catholic endorsement. To be fair to SPUC they are simply filling a gap.

SPUC has two problems, the first one being that in order to gain any serious political traction, any pro-life movement, be that in the realms of abortion or euthanasia should not be perceived as a purely religious movement. To use the cliche, if I had a penny for every time I’ve trotted out the phrase that life issues, including contraception and IVF for that matter, don’t actually require any sort of religious belief or recourse to theism to be valid ethical positions, neither do they fit into any sort of left/right-wing praxis, then I’d be a seriously rich woman by now.

One of the accusations trotted out by those angered by my original post was that my criticism came from self-interest, I had my eye on staging some sort of coup and emerging as a female pro-life leader. One of the reasons that I have absolutely no intention or desire to lead any sort of movement (aside from the fact I am not a natural leader and have never been comfortable in these sorts of positions and have more than enough on my plate at present) is because as a lesser-known Catholic, I’d never be able to move beyond the ‘religious agenda’ template. The future of pro-life in the political sphere in any event, needs to be able to bust the religious zealot/wingnut frame and led by someone who has kept below the radar.

LifeCharity has a Catholic founder and chairman in Jack Scarisbrick and admittedly employs practicing Christians of all denominations, but it also employs those of other faiths and none. It is this wholly secular, non-religious flavour of the organisation which has enabled it to make some inroads in terms of being invited to participate in policy forums. It is precisely Life’s lack of overt religiosity, it refuses to endorse or alternatively condemn 40 Days for Life for example which makes the pro-choice lobby spit with fury as the tired accusations and tropes simply don’t work. This is why organisations such as Education for Choice, do their damnest to undermine them in other fields, such as pregnancy counselling and education. It isn’t LIFE’s secular nature that protects them from such attacks, let’s face it, there’s a whole plethora of people whom it would suit, from professional lobby groups to big Pharma groups or anyone with any sort of financial interests in contraception and abortion, who want pro-lifers kicked out of schools and not being allowed anywhere near a woman with an unplanned pregnancy. The lack of religiosity makes the smear merchants’ job much harder as well as enabling LIFE to reach a wider audience who would perhaps be more willing to lay their prejudices about religious organisations aside and listen.

The second problem is that the UK Catholic church should have a dedicated pro-life movement throughout the country. It’s very hard for Catholics to donate to secular pro-life charities who make appeals in church, when they emphasize the non-religious nature of their work. Now there’s no reason why religion should come into fields such as crisis pregnancy counselling or sex education especially for the wider world, but neither should Catholicism be excluded, particularly when we are talking about Catholic schools or parishioners.

I’m proud to publicly state my support for 40 days for life (as has Pope Francis), I believe that respectful, dignified silent prayer vigils with specialist trained and experienced crisis pregnancy outreach workers are an excellent witness to the faith. But it’s very hard to support an organisation who comes into my church and says ‘we don’t stand outside the abortion clinics’ in lofty tones signifying disproval.

There is a need for a Catholic organisation not only to support prayer vigils, but to do all of the grass-roots and outreach work to change hearts and minds which is every bit as vital as the politics. SPUC are quite good at some of this. My father-in-law is a member and is always exercised into action by the literature that comes dropping through his letterbox at regular intervasl from SPUC. He made an appointment to see his MP about same-sex marriage on their advice, rang them up and had a ‘very long helpful conversation for at least half an hour with a girl from there’ which briefed him in terms of what to say and what to expect.

Thing is though, as I said before, I’m still not convinced that this was the best use of their time and resources, it’s fighting a battle on too many fronts. Too many members of the general public were baffled by SPUC’s response to same-sex marriage whose point was that anything that undermines marriage therefore leads to the collapse of family life which then results in social consequences such as abortion, was too sophisticated and nuanced to work effectively. Marriage had already been weakened over the past few decades, notably with the introduction of no-fault divorce – an adulterer’s charter, there are consequences for the unborn child in terms of trying to state that every couple has the right to marriage and children, but most people could not see beyond the straw-man argument of causation and asked how two men or women getting married would then cause a third party to have an abortion.

The work that SPUC did in terms of briefing my father-in-law, could and should have been done by a different agency. If we’d had a cohesive official Catholic life movement, then they would have been able to pick up the slack.

The trouble is that because John Smeaton seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time attacking the Catholic bishops and hierarchy on his blog along with LGBT issues, it doesn’t make the Catholic church inclined to work with him, further fuelling his annoyance and thus the cycle of recrimination continues and nothing gets done.

No doubt lots of people will say to me in the coms box, yeah Caroline, but John Smeaton was right to criticise the bishops because of xyz. Specifically on this issue of Archbishop Peter Smith’s statement asking the government not to automatically convert civil partnerships into marriage and abolish them, which John Smeaton has blogged about, I would have a slightly different take. Yes, the CDF did issue guidelines against civil partnerships back in 2003, identifying correctly that they would lead to the introduction of marriage. The Archbishop was however speaking in the context of 2014, when civil partnerships are a reality. His point was the same as it was back in their introduction in 2003, being that civil partnerships do afford some important legal protections for same-sex couples. You really would need to be an unreasonable bigot to deny people the right to live with whom they choose and to be able to have that person given a special legal status as a significant companion, regardless of whether or not they are having an intimate sexual relationship. It isn’t beyond the bounds of imagination to suggest that there could be some Catholics living a chaste life within a civil partnership who do not wish to see them become marriages.

After attacking the Archbishop for his perceived deviation from Catholic teaching about civil partnerships, John then goes into a long diatribe about the lack of condemnation for homosexuality or homosexual acts from Peter Smith and whether or not civil partnerships or gay marriages are deemed to be sexual in nature, quoting an Anglican barrister for support!

It frankly appears prurient and petty minded. We know that there are problems with the legal definition of gay marriage, sexual consummation is necessarily missing, but the Archbishop was neither promoting gay marriage nor encouraging people to have extra marital sex. Stating the legal protections of civil partnerships is not the same as encouraging people to enter them. Does an Archbishop really need to take every opportunity to specifically denounce and reiterate Catholic teaching on homosexual acts? Aren’t we all already more than aware of what the Church says about sex outside of marriage? Besides which the Catholic church welcomed the Wolfenden Report which led to the de-criminalisation of homosexuality in the UK and have also called for homosexuality to be de-criminalised throughout the world, as acts of private morality should not be subject to criminal sanctions.

People are rarely converted to Christianity simply by preaching; clever reasoned, compelling and logical arguments are all very well, but there also needs to be some element of personal encounter as St Paul demonstrates. I recently attended a session with the Catholic Labour MP Rob Flello, who entered the Commons as an atheist, where he talked movingly about a very personal encounter with Christ which led to his conversion.

Continually preaching about homosexuality or reiterating Catholic teaching on it does nothing to bring about the joy of Christ. Surely these discussions are best held on a one-to-one personal basis? In any event context is everything, at a time when Catholics are fighting to have our voices heard in the public square, denouncements of homosexual acts as immoral and disordered in a document concerned with protecting the legal rights of those in civil partnerships is not only irrelevant, but risks any remaining credibility or opportunity to be heard.

But to get back to the point, SPUC have done some good work and do number some good people in their organisation. It’s just a tragedy to see them continually arguing themselves into irrelevance and alienating themselves from official Catholic endorsement and support with their leader’s relentless focus upon homosexuality which is often picked up on by mainstream media, along with criticism of the Catholic bishops. I’m not saying that the bishops should be exempt from criticism where it is merited, but as ever it really isn’t the remit of a secular lobby group.

Catholics cannot deny the link between abortion and the deviation from God’s plan for human flourishing. Perhaps it’s time for the UK church to propose that case a lot better than in the past and then maybe SPUC can concentrate solely on how best they can fulfil their remit of specifically protecting the life of the unborn child, for which purpose they solicit donations and support.

Oxford pro-life witness: that’s how to do it!

Since 2007, a group of pro-lifers in Oxford have regularly met once a month to stand outside the entrance to the John Radcliffe hospital in order to silently bear witness to the sanctity of human life.

Their vigil takes place at the weekend, when no abortions take place, therefore they cannot be accused of harassing or distressing pregnant women and neither can they be accused of causing a breach of the peace – their witness is entirely peaceful.

Recently they have attracted the attention and ire of pro-choice activists, who have angrily tried to disrupt the witness, getting up close and personal, quite literally in the face of those standing in silent solidarity. This video footage is extremely telling – what strikes me are the tactics of intimidation attempted by the pro-choicers, who are without a doubt the aggressors here; attempting to close down a peaceful legal event, prevent freedom of expression and then quite unbelievably and perhaps predictably, claiming victim status.

Joseph Shaw has uploaded the photos of the event to his Flickr stream here.

This is exactly how pro-life witness should take place, quietly, peacefully, en masse and without making the pro-life movement vulnerable to spurious claims of harassment. It is patently obvious that no harassment or provocation by the part of the pro-lifers has taken place and yet the handful of protestors intent on disrupting the witness nevertheless audaciously attempt to claim otherwise.

The other interesting point to note here is that, to the best of my knowledge, this witness has not been organised by any of the major pro-life charities or lobby-groups, this is activism at its best, a group of like-minded people getting together to take some practical action. This kind of thing  reminds us that actually that in some situations we don’t need to be sheep, waiting to be herded and marshalled into action by someone else or an official group, complaining that ‘nothing ever gets done’. Provided we stay within the precepts of the law, then there is nothing to stop similar witnesses taking place up and down the country and this is precisely what vigils such as Forty Days for Life are attempting to achieve.

For those who mutter about whether or not vigils are the best tactic to win hearts and minds or are ‘effective’, once again I want to scream at you – ‘prayer is never wasted’.  Furthermore I’d also wonder whether or not succumbing to secular unease about prayer in the public square is advisable. Only one group of people stand to benefit from fewer public pro-life vigils and it isn’t the vulnerable pregnant women!

Finally, there has been a lot of chatter on social media over the past few weeks regarding attempts to disassociate the pro-life moment from overt displays of religiosity, in order to make it more ‘inclusive’. I would strongly agree that there needs to be more secular initiatives, a pro-life attitude does not require any recourse to theism as several atheist or even wiccan pro-life colleagues of mine would testify. I agree that pro-life sentiment needs to move beyond being perceived as being solely within the realms of ‘religious whackjobs’, which is why we have several official non-religious pro-life charities and lobby groups, which incidentally, does not make them immune from attack. The abortion ideologues will attack from whatever angle they can, they simply find the religious stereotype the easiest one to deal with.

What the above video demonstrates however, is the effectiveness of these witnesses  – how a group of people standing in silent solidarity or singing a simple timeless Latin chant can arouse such irrational anger. Obviously they are thought to be dangerous in terms of swaying public opinion  -why else would these handful of extremists go to such lengths to counter their message and issue empty threats?

What those within the pro-life movement need to remember is that while some may not been inclined towards overt displays of religiosity (although I know of several pagans who participate in 40 Days for Life), attempts to remove or conceal prayer, are misguided. Pro-life is never purely about the politics or PR, it will always for the Christian involve prayer and practical action.

Furthermore Catholics are the core constituents in the movement, the ones most likely to give of both their time and their money and as shown above, the ones most inclined to actually get off their backside and do something, whether that be attending a vigil, volunteering with or donating to a pro-life charity, or organising some sort of fund-raiser. It is never a matter of mere ideology. Efforts to be inclusive, should not write off or alienate the stalwarts such as the good people in this video in their well-intentioned aim to soften the sceptic and hardened neo-liberal hearts.

Congratulations to all those involved in Oxford – cages are obviously being rattled.

(Note the amount of young women taking part; quite a contrast from the middle-aged feminists and the man ludicrously holding the ‘my body, my choice’ banner).

Women’s safety a priority?

The 40 Days of Choice group, set up to counter 40 days for Life, have gone into propaganda overdrive, tweeting a link to a report that women diagnosed with foetal abnormality are ‘denied surgical abortions’. Yet again, the Guardian proves its reputation as being the the soft advertiser on behalf of the abortion industry, the conference referred to was one organised and funded by BPAS and the pro-choice group ARC (ante-natal results and choices).

A woman who has never actually had to give birth to her deceased child vocalised her horror at the prospect and described how she had needed to borrow £1,000 in order to have a surgical abortion performed swiftly, instead of having to wait two weeks to see a consultant and being told that she would need to give birth naturally.

With lots of accompanying rhetoric about the politicisation of abortion and how foetal abnormality ‘forces’ women to abort, the usual frame of choice shifts from the concept of abortion, to the actual method itself. Nobody seems to be asking the question as to why these women are somehow forced, why does foetal abnormality or disability take away a woman’s agency?

The stat that less than 1% of all pregnancies are ended due to foetal abnormality is also presented, in order to convey sympathy, this is such a rare occasion, (which should tell us something about the obscene amount of abortions that are performed in the UK) surely women in this unusual situation ought to be allowed to choose, as well as take their time?

Jane Fisher of Antenatal Results and Choices points to the research that this is such a distressing time for women that they need to be able to take their time and space to chose on the abortion method that is right for them. Not that they need time and space to choose whether or not to abort, rather to choose the method.

Sadly I understand this all too well. We had an appointment at the hospital today in order to discuss the options in terms of delivering our own deceased child. The nurse could not have been more sympathetic, she checked that I understood why we were there and took her time explaining the different options to us. She also stressed that there was absolutely no hurry to make any sort of decision, we could go home, we could choose whatever option we wanted, we could change our mind at the last minute, no-one was going to pressure us at all.

I can more than understand why some women in my situation would choose surgery, it’s over very quickly, you are unconscious, you do not have to see any foetal remains and neither do you have the interminable wait to see if nature might take it course, something that could take weeks. I would not admonish any woman who chose the surgical option, however, I don’t think it’s for me, for a number of reasons, one being that there are often no remains left to bury.

But the difference for women in my situation is that tragically, our babies are already dead. I more than empathise with women having to give birth to a dead child, it’s what I am going to face over the next few weeks, but there is some comfort in knowing that there is nothing I could have done. All I can do now is see to it that he or she is given a decent burial.

For those women who are faced with the terrible situation of feeling forced into aborting a profoundly disabled child, there is for many, some form of closure in being able to hold a funeral, or bury the remains and say goodbye to their child, even if there is also a sense of dissonance.

But the most important thing is that by giving women time to make their decision, something that I would always advocate, the surgical option becomes less and less safe. So today, when we were discussing my options, it was very clear that while not being forced, I was being strongly steered towards a medical management, i.e. when pills are administered to force contractions. Surgery would not have been denied, but it was clear the consultant preferred to recommend a medical management because it was safer for me with a relatively late, missed miscarriage, which is larger than usual.

I was explicitly informed, both verbally and in writing, that surgery carries an increased risk of infection, scarring and perforation of the uterus. If I opted for a medical management, I would be given a private room with ensuite bathroom, a cannula inserted in case fluids or a blood transfusion is needed and given as much pain relief as possible. They would also issue me with the paperwork to bury or cremate the remains. A far cry from the medical abortion procedure that takes place in abortion clinics, who have been campaigning for women to be able to miscarry at home. The NHS pulled no punches, this will be emotionally and physically difficult, but they would support me through it, rather than leave me to suffer at home alone. Unlike at the clinics, Robin will be allowed accompany me the whole way through the procedure. It isn’t the narrative of period pains or slight cramping that the abortion clinics try to soft-soap women with. Former clinic worker Abby Johnson who had a medical abortion tells it like it is.

I get it, I truly understand what an ordeal it is to have to deliver a dead child, at any stage of gestation, but if surgery is the riskier option for me with a child at 10 + 5 gestation, 12 weeks into pregnancy, the risk will increase for women at a later stage – typically, abnormalities are not picked up until around 12 weeks and in many cases, not until 20, when one doesn’t have a choice in terms of abortion, you have to deliver.

It’s terrible when your 12 week scan delivers devastating news, we have been totally blindsided by what’s happened, though we’ll get through it, life seems that bit more grey, bleak, colourless. Our future does not seem quite so rosy, our precious little baby has been taken away. My body has not yet caught onto the situation as is common in this situation, and so I’m still experiencing full-blown pregnancy symptoms in a cruel twist of nature. The mind and body are at odds with each other, while I know the baby has passed away, my body is trying to fool me into thinking otherwise. I’m sick, have the erratic familiar food aversions, am growing bigger as the hormones increase the size of the sac and yet know there will be no baby at the end of the process.

I have no doubt that a diagnosis of foetal anomaly has a similar effect and my heart goes out to anyone faced with this. But where there is life there is always hope, why aren’t we asking why women in this situation are feeling forced, but instead blindly accepting the inevitability of abortion for disabled children?

As for the choice of method of termination, surely that should be wholly down to clinical factors, and what is in the best interests of a woman’s overall health, not politicised in order to do homage to the false notion that we have bodily agency?

If one were inclined to shout empty slogans, the following seems applicable:

Pro-“choice”? That’s a lie, you don’t care if women die.

As the Good Counsel Network have just pointed out the reason why 40 Days for Choice find women having to give birth to their dead child ‘disgusting’ is because that word sums up the tragic reality of abortion.

And vigils don’t work?

Clare at the Good Counsel Network has the joyous news that BPAS have announced that their flagship facility at Bedford Square in Central London, is to close.

While BPAS have announced this as an operational decision – they are merging with their clinic in Stratford, this means that client numbers will fall and thus there is one less site in central London carrying out the destruction of human life on a daily basis.

Who says that the power of prayer doesn’t work? Whichever way the pro-choicers try to spin it, this is a seminal moment for the UK prolife movement. If the demand was there, BPAS would remain open for business.

Though the national press will be uninterested, the significance of the 1st UK abortion clinic closure should not be underestimated. Fewer women are choosing abortion, mothers and babies will be safer. Thank God for that.

Update:

BPAS would appear to have been caught on the back foot claiming that their clinic is not in actual fact closing, but it is very clear from their statement that they will no longer carry out abortion procedures at Bedford Square.

This is evidently not something that they would have chosen to advertise, BPAS are a business, clearly there is no significant demand for abortion facilities in central London, and their clinic is not proving cost effective, otherwise they would be continuing provision.

The decision to transfer provision to East London demonstrates the cynicism inherent in BPAS’ operational decisions. While Stratford enjoys good transport links, it entails a longer, more expensive journey for many London residents. If BPAS claim that they are locating clinics closer to where people are living (and we have yet to see evidence of more planned clinics) it is very telling that their area of most perceived need is a place with a diverse population, consisting of a high proportion of ethnic minority groups, young people and high levels of social deprivation. Funny how there are no mooted plans to open up in other residential areas such as Pimlico, Knightsbridge, or further out to the west of the city, such as Chiswick or even Weybridge. I wonder how a BPAS clinic would be received by residents of wealthy stockbroker belts such as Shenley or Sevenoaks? Still that isn’t going to happen…

Vigil vigilance

Thinking about this whole vigil issue, I’ve just had a bit of crucial insight, courtesy of a friend who was also thinking out loud. Being so close, I just couldn’t see how a peaceful pro-life prayer vigil, especially one that helps women in desperate situations, could be perceived in a bad light by other pro-life groups, or how they undermine education.

The answer is all to do how with how they’ve been framed by a frantic pro-choice movement desperate to discredit and how this narrative has been picked up by a sensationalist media.

40 Days for Life are being portrayed as a weird fringe activity, dangerous Americans have been conflated with prayer vigils and then education has been chucked in, to make the whole pro-life movement appear as one threatening mess. Prayer vigils are the hinge that allow the pro-choice movement to discuss the importation of American methods and we all know that Americans kill people, American culture is innately evil and all traces of it must be stamped out lest it corrupts and ruins our society.

Groups such as Education for Choice, (who are owned by the Brook sexual health charity) are campaigning for pro-life groups such as SPUC, LIFE and the Right-to-Life trust to be kicked out of schools, claiming that children deserve to be taught about ‘individual choice in a safe environment’ and who promote ‘enabling easy non judgemental access to abortion’, have openly called for parents’ rights to remove children from sex-education lessons to be removed as they are ‘neo-Victorian’. Abortion eduction in schools needs to be vastly improved, in their considered and wholly unbiased position as consultants to abortion providers, opinion. It’s worth reading how they single out SPUC’s campaign against same-sex marriage here.

This passage from their toolkit for best practice, makes disturbing reading for anyone who may be concerned about women or young girls being coerced into abortion and should surely make anyone who would claim that abortion is a woman’s right to choose, bristle:

If a young man has or goes on to have experience of unplanned pregnancy with a partner, it is important that he knows who he can talk to and where he can go for help and support, as well as being able to signpost his partner to appropriate agencies. This is especially important when a couple are not agreed about what the outcome of a pregnancy should be, which can be a very difficult situation for a young man to face. Signposting to young men’s services is an important part of abortion education.

It’s worth looking at that toolkit in full – here’s another passage that stood out, warning schools about inviting in pro-life speakers and telling them to check the organisation’s website as an outside speaker can be lent weight and credibility by their invitation to speak:

For example, some websites promote abstinence as the only effective way of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections; understate the efficacy of condoms and hormonal contraceptives; cite emergency contraception as a form of abortion; stigmatise homosexuality; and overstate the risks of abortion, in relation to physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Without stating the blindingly obvious here, we can see what pro-life groups are up against and how they could do without the bad press of prayer vigils.

I’ve unpicked the inherent racism and ill-conceived myths about America and the pro-life movement previously. In a country which has a wholly different political demographic, not to mention very liberal gun laws, atrocities will sadly occur, as they will all over the world. It is not the vigils themselves that incur and incite violence – it is a handful of unhinged individuals who take the law into their own hands. 8 individuals in the US abortion industry have been killed since Roe v Wade in 1972. That’s 8 too many, pro-lifers abhor violence of any sort and believe all life to be sacred, (the clue is in the name), but this isn’t a case of big scary gun-toting fundamentalists regularly shooting at folk. It’s actually those who are on the vigil who regularly put themselves in the line of fire, being shot at and fire-bombed in some cases, by those from within the abortion clinic. Just as the LGBT lobby distanced themselves from and condemned the individual who shot at a worker at the Family Research Centre last year, pro-lifers equally condemn any who defile their cause by the use of senseless violence.

That prayers and vigils are an important part of pro-life work goes without saying. They matter profoundly and we should not have a situation where one part of a cause undermines another – this should not be an either/or and one of the strengths of 40 days for life is that it has managed to unite many of the different sections within the pro-life movement and bring together Christians of all denominations.

I can well understand the antipathy, but we have to bear in mind, this is not purely a political or educational effort, there is a spiritual dimension and this highlights one of the downsides of a purely secular pro-life group, who wish to distance themselves from the publicly praying weirdos.

I think what those of us on vigils have to do and keep on doing, is what we’ve always done, just quietly and continually pray and know that our witness will eventually shine through. The lies and the conflations of the abortion industry can easily be disproved, BPAS or Marie Stopes have admitted that there is no need to provide clinic escorts, they know full well no harassment, let alone violence takes place, they have cameras constantly trained upon those on the vigils and there have been no arrests or requests to move on and neither do volunteers engage with or respond to any insults or abuse. Neither do they hold up any judgemental or inflammatory slogans or material – there is simply a verse from scripture and a sign which states ‘we are here to help’. If women entering clinics feel bad, it is because their own conscience has been pricked or because they cannot cope with a physical manifestation that not everyone is prepared to validate abortion, as opposed to anything that the volunteers may say or do.

If 40 days for Life are being portrayed as a bizarre fringe movement, the absence of Catholics only serves to reinforce the image and allows the pro-choice movement to dictate the frame. If however, they prove by their witness, actions and lives that they save, that the only threat vigils pose is to the abortion clinics’ balance sheet, the general public will begin to see behind the lies.

I understand the concern, the vigils are being used as a hook on which pro-choice groups are seeking to get pro-lifers out of education, as theirs is the only voice to be tolerated, but this attack upon freedom of religion and attempt at one-sided indoctrination in which abortion is presented as a preferable option in some situations and at worst as morally neutral, must be resisted on the strongest possible terms and shown up for its inherent and ironic illiberality. Prayer vigils should have nothing to do with whether or not children ought to be given a wholly one-sided and relativistic view of sexual morality and neither should they be banished from our streets due to a misconceived fear of US style ‘culture wars’. The UK is not the US and culture wars feed upon an atmosphere of intolerance. The UK is thankfully a largely tolerant country without the same divisions as exist in the US. The issue of abortion is not split so evenly along political lines and 40 Days for Life is not a political protest or one that seeks to denounce women or those with a pro-choice mentality.

The only ‘war’ here is the cultures of life versus death and we should not allow fear to drive prayer out of the public square. The battle for education goes way beyond the activities of those praying for an end to abortion outside a clinic.

A Battle between Heaven and Hell

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I went to see David Bereit, one of the founders of the 40 Days for Life movement, when he came to give encouragement and support to those involved in the vigils outside the Wistons clinic in Brighton, at a talk last night.

There were many positive and encouraging stories of what the movement has achieved, how a simple one-hour prayer vigil by a group of 3 friends outside a clinic in Texas in 2004 has rapidly expanded to become a worldwide and global movement, and the importance of the UK in this effort. Colette, one of the volunteers I met in London during the last campaign had travelled here in order to be a part of it, having been so impressed by what she’d read and has now taken the campaign back to her home country of South Africa. Another volunteer has also taken the campaign to Russia; the UK is seen as an international hub or a global gateway, what happens here influences other countries, so seen in this context its not surprising that the opposition has been quite so vociferous.

David talked about a seminal moment in his pro-life journey which sent shivers down my spine – whatever the explanation for events, there could be no doubting his sincerity and it certainly played well with the mainly Evangelical attendees.  David sees the mass slaughter of the unborn as the great spiritual battle of our age and attempts to rouse people out of their apathy and reluctance. Abortion is, he says, the defining crisis of our generation, it is literally a battle between  life and death, a battle between heaven and hell and what we will be accountable to God for. What we did and what we did not do.

In terms of the eschatological terminology I think he definitely has a point. Though many of the topics of this blog are unpalatable to many, it is without a doubt, the posts regarding abortion and the 40 days for life movement in particular, that arouse the most anger, vitriol and abuse, especially anything where I might write about pro-life witness. Someone once said to me ‘Caroline, you’re really rattling the cages of hell here’ and whilst I would eschew any description that would attempt to paint me in any sort of saintly, righteous or pious light, knowing that I am very very far from being pure in heart, it does sometimes feel like there are dark forces at work, not least in terms of anger and various attempts to prevent or put stumbling blocks in the way of 40 Days for Life, which has three elements at its heart – prayer and fasting, clinic vigils and community outreach.

Had the local feminist collective known about last night’s visit, they would no doubt have been protesting outside, with banners about ‘slut-shaming’ and removing their rights, we would have been seen as a group of moralisers seeking to oppress them and violently force them into gruesome births or seedy filthy backstreet abortions involving coat-hangers, whereas actually the discussion revolved around women’s welfare, what more could be done to help, how to make outreach compassionate and effective. There was no judgement about the women themselves let alone their sexual morality. This was a group of Christians wanting to bear witness and demonstrate caritas in action.

40 Days for Life was chosen as a result of its many biblical references – Noah was in the ark for 40 days and nights whilst God punished the world with a flood, Moses spent 40 days and nights on a mountain with God on two occasions, Goliath taunted the Israelite army for 4o days, God was planning to destroy the city of Ninevah in 40 days, before he saw the acts of repentance of the Ninevites and had compassion on them and in the New Testament, Jesus was fasted and was tempted by the devil when he was at his weakest after 40 days and 40 nights and of course following the Resurrection, he appeared to his followers and disciples for a period of 40 days before He ascended into heaven. Forty days is then a time of testing and a time of transformation.

Forty days for life is living God’s vision as if we were being salt and light. The clinic vigils take place because we know that whenever two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus, he is there among them. It is to bring Christ’s presence where it is most needed – outside the abortion clinics and to awaken the conscience of the Christian community. The frequent turnarounds (there have been at least 10 already in the past 8 days in London) show that sometimes God can reach the heart of the mother.

Which brings me on to the hard part. There is something troubling my conscience about which I have agonised over, in terms of whether or not to remain silent. I mentioned that last night the meeting was mainly attended by the Evangelical stalwarts of the campaign. Only 4 Catholics attended, including myself and the head of the Worthing branch of SPUC, despite the fact that Brighton and Hove is a thriving deanery. The Wistons clinics conducts 4,000 abortions every year, equivalent to two and half classes of schoolchildren every week, in the heart of our city.

One of the attendees. Michael Petek (who comments here on Protect the Pope) discussed his disappointment having read on a local parish newsletter, that the local deanery clergy were in consensus that Catholics should not attend the 40 Days for Life vigils because of the negative press coverage and because it undermined the educational work of other pro-life charities such as LIFE.

This has been weighing really heavily on me since I saw the announcement myself on a pewsheet on Sunday and it’s caused me many tears and anguish for a number of reasons. Firstly I know the clergy of the deanery, they are good wise and holy men and I have no doubt as to their integrity or that this is a considered decision. Secondly, I don’t want to be seen as an agitator or denouncer and someone who doesn’t know her place. The thing is that I’m very much of the WSIWYG school – what you see is very much what you get with me, I wear my heart on my sleeve much more than is probably wise and it’s why I would never consider a career in politics or the diplomatic service. I am worried that I am the wrong person to speak out on this one, for a variety of reasons, but what I would say is that my concerns and hurt are not personal grievances with individuals.

Like many Catholics, I respect, trust and look up to our clergy. If they advise me as to a course of action, I will follow their guidance. Therefore if they are advising people not to join the 40 Days for Life vigils, it feels like something of act of disobedience to participate. Whilst I know that clergy are not infallible and we have to be aware of clericalism, to participate in a prayer vigil, now feels like an open act of defiance. It will certainly deter many of the faithful from getting involved, knowing that the diocesan clergy seem to have reached a consensus (according to the notice) that the vigils are not a good thing for Catholics.

Personally I can’t help but feel very hurt and almost betrayed, given that I do volunteer a lot of my precious spare time and energy to this cause trying to shake people out of their apathy, which is obviously seen as being unhelpful and counterproductive. One of the other Catholics who attended last night’s meeting, kept repeating in disbelief,’ is this really what was being said’, such was her incredulity. Catholics, innate defenders of the unborn, are being urged not to publicly pray outside abortion clinics, because of what other people might think and because it might obscure the pro-life message in schools.

Think about that for a minute. Priests are telling Catholics not to pray in public, for fear of public opinion. It just feels so innately wrong and if nothing else, hands a huge victory to the pro-choicers. I am not clear as to how 40 days for Life might damage the work of LIFE in schools either.

I don’t wish to sow discord or more factionalism. I am more sad and hurt than anything else, but to me this seems symptomatic of the spiritual battle we are facing, one which I think we will win and one that I am proud to play my part in, despite the smears of those who would wish to portray  us as fundamentalist nutters looking to harass and threaten, when we, along with others, know the truth. Compare and contrast what the Good Counsel Network are offering with what the pro-choicers are offering.

Unborn children are saved, they may be small in number, but they are every bit as precious and valuable. Hearts and minds are changed by peaceful prayerful witness and surely as Christians we believe that God answers prayer and in the power of vigils? I cannot get my head around Catholics being asked to stay away from public prayer vigils for the unborn in this Year of Faith, by those who have care of souls. I am deeply deeply troubled and scandalised, whilst not wishing to cause scandal or escalate matters. I am writing this with a very heavy heart indeed.

As I said, I am no saint, but I have been praying here to Bernadette Soubirous, someone else whose public prayer was discouraged by the clergy. To me, this is simply yet another manifestation of David’s words, this is spiritual warfare, this is the battle between heaven and hell and I pray to God that I’m on the right side. One day my children and grandchildren will ask me ‘what did you do in the fight against abortion’ and I hope to be able to tell them how I tried my best, I wasn’t afraid to be painted as a nutter and face public vitriol and abuse for praying for the unborn, that I tried to reach out and help women and change hearts and minds.  I hope to be able to say the same to my Creator as well.

And before complaints come flooding in about the diocese or particular individuals (which won’t be published) I will state that this is an initiative that seems to be being supported by our diocese. 

Please join me in prayers that it isn’t too late to change hearts and minds in Brighton. And let me know your thoughts from a Catholic perspective.

Pro-life, the times they are a-changing.

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Last year, I wrote extensively, both on this blog and in two pieces for the Catholic Herald, that the tide was turning for the pro-life movement.

This very point has been proven by the latest cover of Time magazine, which admits that since the phyrric victory of what was Roe v Wade, the pro-choice side has been fighting a losing battle, with Emily Buchanan writing what I have been saying time and time again – pro-life and feminism are not mutually exclusive.

Of course what happens over there, happens over here, which is why pro-choice advocates have been speaking about the parallels with the American pro-life movement in cowed tones – of course they do not want the success of the pro-life movement being replicated in the UK.

I think one of the refreshing things is the breed of new activists that we are seeing in the UK. Whereas as recently as five years ago, pro-life advocates were seen as retired men and women in their late 60s and early 70s (not that age or gender should preclude anyone from standing up for the rights of the vulnerable), more often than not, the person that you will see praying outside the clinic will be in their early twenties or thirties, in line with a younger, fresher breed of advocates that we are seeing in the UK.

As I said, age or gender should not be an important factor but in terms of the personal outreach, women, particularly those who have experienced an unplanned pregnancy of their own, life as a single mother and especially those who have experienced the loss of abortion, are often better placed to counsel those in difficult circumstances. Empathy is often sneered at, but you need to have a heart for pro-life work, it is not simply an intellectual or ideological exercise.

But in an age where image seems to be everything, the fact that we have young, fresh faces campaigning for the unborn should fill us all with renewed hope. We have a new generation with the blessings and energy of youth, able to use imaginatively the new technology and all the tools at their disposal to spread the pro-life message and also to pass it on to future generations. That these people look great is even better. It’s why they manage to inspire such anger – whilst the general public tend to dismiss those who are clearly of another generation or culture, such as the retired stalwarts or those in clerical or monastic attire who attend vigils, it’s much harder to dismiss those who seem like ‘normal’ people on the outside.

It’s very hard to call someone out as a ‘weirdo’ when their appearance contains reflections of your own normality or aspirations and that’s why it inspires such anger. Young pro-lifers threaten and challenges existing preconceptions whilst foreshadowing the future. There is a definite trend or sea-change in the air, which is why the feminist lobby will cling on to their tired and anatomically and idiomatically incorrect old slogans involving wombs, rosaries and religious paraphernalia.

That’s not a clarion-call for young good-looking bods in the movement which should have room for all, but simply an observation. Even more challenging is the attractive young pro-lifer using the rosary for its intended purpose. Whoah, what’s that all about?!! Which is one of the many fruits of the 40 Days for Life campaign, uniting all those with common purpose in prayer.

 The Alliance of Prolife Students is launched next week. Let’s equip people to be proud advocates of the unborn, let’s get this topic out in the open, it’s time to re-gain some ground from those who would wish to make the subject of abortion a taboo, closed issue, all about personal choice and not up for discussion. Whilst experience is invaluable in terms of outreach, youth should not be an impediment for bearing witness to the truth – abortion is the wilful destruction of life and the greatest injustice in today’s society, with 200,000 lives lost a year. And where better to start spreading the word, than in places of academia, where a free and frank exchange of ideas and discussion should be welcomed and encouraged. Let’s get people talking about this in bars, coffee shops, libraries, student halls of residence and later on around water coolers and in places of work. Let’s dispel the fear and stigma of being thought ‘judgemental’ for expressing the basic right to life of all human beings.

The future is young, bright and it’s orthodox. No wonder pro-choicers are on the run. Let’s give them a real run for their money in 2013.