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Today I prayed the Rosary and held up a placard outside our NHS hospital

I am not a natural for this kind of thing. I cringe inwardly when people shout at us, as they occasionally do. But I hope we make people think

By on Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Pro-lifers pray outside an abortion centre in Pennsylvania (Photo: CNS)

Pro-lifers pray outside an abortion centre in Pennsylvania (Photo: CNS)

This morning I joined our monthly pro-life prayer vigil outside our local NHS hospital, Stoke Mandeville. It takes place on the first Wednesday of the month between 12-1 pm. We hold up placards with “Have Mercy on the Unborn” and “Life is a Gift” in bold lettering; we also hold up pictures of a baby in the womb and after birth and one of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Unborn. We are not confrontational; we pray the Rosary, sing hymns and recite the pro-life Litany. It is very simple and very prayerful.

I am not a natural for this kind of thing. I cringe inwardly when people shout at us, as they occasionally do; in the winter it is often cold; a voice within starts whispering, “What is the use?” So why do I come? Well, at first because our former parish priest was keen on the idea and I did not want to let him down. Now he has retired but our small group (usually half a dozen, sometimes a few more or less) keeps going. We are in for the long haul, obviously. We would like others to join us of course, but console ourselves with the parable of the mustard seed.

Recently I read Jack Scarisbrick’s book about the LIFE organisation he founded: Let There Be Life (available from LIFE HQ in Leamington for £5). I have huge admiration for him; he began this arduous pro-life work in 1970 when he was professor of history at Warwick University, with the full departmental and administrative load that required. Further, to be a Catholic in the senior common room is one thing; to be a very active, public, pro-life, controversial Catholic, surrounded by the scepticism or cynicism of academic colleagues, is quite another.

Scarisbrick doesn’t mention any of this in his book; he is solely concerned with getting across the story of LIFE and its valuable work. I am simply guessing at the moral courage required, having glimpsed at senior common rooms from the outside – notably that of Christ Church in the days of Hugh Trevor-Roper, whose recent biography I read. Imagine the Oxford Regius Professor and mandarin, Trevor-Roper, and then think of his probable attitude towards a fellow historian, Jack Scarisbrick, with his extra-curricular pro-life activities, and you see what I mean.

One thing about Professor Scarisbrick’s book bothers me: I have the feeling that he is wary of pro-life demonstrations (if our prayer-vigil can be called a “demonstration”). He says, concerning picketing outside abortion clinics, that one should ask, “Why am I doing this?” and “What impact will it have on passers-by, clinic staff and their clients?” In answer to the first question: I think that along with supporting the main pro-life organisations, there is also a vital place for a visible presence on the streets – so why not me? In answer to the second question, God alone knows. We would like the impact to be positive, to make people think, to make them change. Sometimes we get cheers (from Muslim taxi drivers), sometimes we provoke anger. We stand there and pray; the rest is in the hands of God.

  • paul

    I really respect your views on abortion and I admire the way that you delicately but openly are expressing your views. If that is you opinion a presence is what you want and not a demonstration, or humiliation of the woman that make the choice. Let's remember in America were the issue is more 'alive' than it is here in terms of politics there have been murders of abortion doctors and bombings of abortion clinics and I am not exaggerating for effect.

    Although a catholic myself, I believe it is important to realize that according to the Bible the issue can be interpreted in many different ways. Abortion itself is never actually explicitly mentioned in the bible and many other Christian Churches do allow abortion. I think if the Church wants to get change of policy on this issue it needs to be pragmatic and not fiercely ideological. In truth we know that a 'soul' or what most people would consider as 'life that should be preserved' does come at some disputable point AFTER conception, we can't ignore all scientific and medical knowledge and we should use it to inform our own decisions.

  • Me

    Don't have to reach out for the bible or other christian churches to understand the ethical implications of abortion – science is all you need: consider that your life began the moment that your father's sperm penetrated your mother's ovum. The rest is up for discussion but to deny that that was the real actual start of your development is well unscientific and quite frankly strange.

  • tiggy

    No interpretation of the 5th commandment is needed. It just says ” Thou shalt not kill”. Full stop.

  • louella

    Prayer and witness are great forces for change…..God will do the rest. God Bless your stance, and don't forget you give courage to those who are passively pro-life and are not necessarily religious.

  • Nesbyth

    You didn't mention in your blog whether women arriving for an abortion have to pass your prayer vigil and if so, what is their reaction? I imagine they put their heads down and carry on?

    Do any change their minds do you think? Maybe not outside, but possibly once inside? Are there any instances of anyone changing their mind?

    Anyway, it is always good to say the Rosary and seen as well as unseen blessings must come from your stance.

  • alison fi

    Have you any idea how much courage it takes to sit in front of a scanner with your husband to be told your baby is unlikely to go to term and as such will suffer? I know how much courage it takes because I suffered through this with my husband earlier this year. I wanted to die. All my hopes and dreams for the pregnancy were crushed and our expectations for a life to be born into this world and enjoy what I have enjoyed disappeared. Night after night I thought about the dying life inside me and wondered what next. And I wanted to die. I wanted it all to be taken away from me as though it had never happened rather than be incubating a suffering dying child. For all your measured judgment on how to convey your views had I seen you outside our hospital as we were suffering with the results of the scan and the “what nexts” to term with a sick baby or not would not have made me consider anything other than suicide. I wonder if you would ever consider a prayer for women in my position because abortion was frankly a choice we made not out of spite, lack of care, lack of desire to encourage a life but to alleviate enormous suffering. That is not making people think. It is making couples like us suffer by lumping us all into the same basket as those who choose to dispatch a healthy life routinely or as though it doesnt matter. What we would not have given to be holding and carrying precious healthy life with a slim chance. But we were not. I hope by sharing this tragedy and the gutwrenching awfulness of our experience which hurts to this day I would make you think also. That my prayers are as strong as yours and our baby, wanted and loved, is in the hands of God. It was the least positive situation and since it is unlikely you would take the time to sit and share in our pain I cannot say I would have taken the time to understand why you would choose to stand outside a hospital where all manner of situations and tragedies are ongoing and make those couples crises and pain so much worse. May God forgive me and my hsband and understand all we wanted for that baby was no more suffering. May God also one day inspire and encourage people to stop lecturing others and help them instead. I understand you doing this with your own good reason and in many ways a less overt way than perhaps this debate unfolds in America but you add to a tragedy and I know I would have reacted on myself had I encountered you at that point in my life. Please think about how far you push people with your views.

    Thank you and God bless

  • MaryP

    Francis, I miss not being able to join you. The Stoke Mandeville vigil is low-key but a much-needed witness for the dignity of the unborn child. Here in the US, vigils are generally more high-profile, although the only ones I have witnessed have been similar to ours in the UK, silent and prayerful. Much is made of the pro-life 'nutters' who attack abortionists. Little is heard of the pro-life campaigners who are themselves the victims. I witnessed in Oxford a few years ago, a car mount the pavement and drive at the group (consisting mainly of little old Irish ladies praying the Rosary) on the opposite side of the road. The elderly woman beside me told me to pray for the driver because 'something must be worrying them terribly for them to do that.'

  • Emerald

    @Paul – as a mother of 4 I can assure you that from the moment of conception a baby is expected. No-one argues this with a happy mother bearing a “wanted” child. Having a child is a life-changing and world-altering event – whether wanted or not, whether kept or not (in any sense). As a Catholic you may have noted how we celebrate the Incarnation exactly 9 months before Christmas. Not 8…not 5! Science is a good thing – the Church sponsored much of it throughout the ages! We are positively meant to know more about God's creation through observation and exploration – within moral confines. However Science is always moving forward, always discovering more – and we are foolish in putting too much faith in declarations when they can only be 'state of the art' and tomorrow may well be outdated. Contrast this to He who is, was and always will be… Science cannot determine 'when' a soul enters a body. But God Himself says – “before I formed you in the womb I knew you” – and that says it all. Each conceived child is a new immortal soul – therefore a new person and moreover a newly created inhabitant of Heaven – that being the destiny God wants for us all. That very fact takes the child somewhat out of the control of mankind – at least as regards life and death. From the moment of conception – the life or death of that child is not ours to decide.

    You mention the Church wanting a change of policy and the need to be pragmatic. The Church is dealing with this holocaust in many, many countries – not just the UK. When I was a child there were already prayers and protests against abortion – back then we laughed at the idea of euthanasia, as if anyone would allow the murder of the old and sick! But here we are. I detest the lunatic fringe who harm others in the name of 'life' – but I can understand how they feel pushed to those extremes – those of us who see each abortion for what it is – one dead, one wounded, and countless stained by being accessories in the process – are facing a colossus – thousands of abortions performed daily – generation after generation destroyed.

    The prayer, witness and protest allows many babies a last minute reprieve – on a very personal basis – this is what is NOT being done by the state, NHS, etc. This is the only way to be pragmatic. There is nothing at all 'idealogical' about expecting a baby!

    I have close contacts with a pro-life charity that offers practical help to mothers and helps them keep their babies. Irrelevant of their faith or lack of same, ALL these women, found at the doors of abortion clinics or seeking them, KNOW abortion is wrong. They say it themselves. The common suffix is “…but it's right for me … now”. Distress, hardship, fear of the consequences – these are the causes and they are not being addressed by anyone outside of a couple of Catholic charities.
    How many are left to go ahead with the procedure and live with that murder hidden in their hearts and never fully acknowledged, confessed, recognised – because it is easier to live with the lie? That is surely as grave an assault on her, as the termination is to the baby.
    Incidentally I personally feel a huge portion of the problem is the rigid adoption laws in this country. So many women would give up a child for adoption if they felt they could do so openly, and stay in touch with the adoptive parents – not an option here.
    Lets not be lukewarm or half-hearted about this issue at all. If you have genuine sympathy for the woman, spare her the murder of her child – even if she seeks it herself. 'They know not what they do'. And when its done the damage starts….

  • alison fi

    Thank you for sharing this. Yes we should remember who else we hurt when we lecture others in no uncertain terms and in an arbitrary fashion. I pray you and your husband are blessed in the future. I also pray that you find comfort and support and would never consider such a desperate personal way out as suicide. I would never forgive myself if my actions caused another to consider such a desperate move.

  • Nesbyth

    What a sad story from Alison and I'm sure she and her husband did what they thought best at the time and were obviously advised by the docs to terminate….although if the baby was going to die in the womb naturally I don't quite understand why an abortion (unnatural) would have been less of a suffering for the baby? I would have thought the opposite to be true. Doctors have strange agenda sometimes.

    For example, I have a friend who was told categorically by the docs after a scan at 20 weeks that her child would have spina bifida and that if she cared about it she should have a “termination”. This was at a very well-known West London hospital. My friend and her husband were put under a great deal of pressure by the medical profession to follow their advice but they didn't. (And by the way they are not Catholics……they are Anglicans but not especially religious.)

    And the rest of the pregnancy was spent learning about spina bifida, getting stuff prepared for the birth of their daughter and weathering the medical establishment's disapproval. However, when their daughter was born she was perfect! She had a small placenta apparently which can be a sign of spina bifida. After the tension of the pregnancy my friend, although utterly delighted, had a severe reaction from all she had been through and what the doctors had put her through, not least their disapproval.

    She got a grudging apology after her husband made a fuss….nothing more; but she does have a fabulous daughter. And you can't always trust doctors to know best!

  • James H

    Sorry, Paul, but the teaching of the church is that a soul is present from conception. Yes, this has been debated in ancient times: St Augustine said that a soul was present only 40 days after conception, for example. But, even when there was debate about when 'ensoulment' occurred, it was never considered licit to abort.

    Scientific and medical knowledge has nothing to say about the presence of a soul. The sould is immaterial (i.e. non-physical) and science only deals with what is physically measurable. Decisions as to at what point the life is 'worth preserving' are necessarily based on very arbitrary thresholds.

  • paul

    I agree that the thresholds are somewhat arbitrary and therefore hard to judge, therefore we should be cautious and set a limit of around 18 weeks rather than the 26 now, as 18 weeks is far before viability and before brain development begins. Lets not put the line where the lines are blurry, we CAN be cautious and draw the lines at a safe distance.

    As far as the existence of a soul is concerned, tell me if it is non-physical could it exist without a brain? For example if my head was taken clean off in a car accident, but my body could be kept alive on a machine in the hospital you are suggesting I should still be kept alive because my 'soul' would still exist??! Rationally it is quite obvious that any soul would be tied intrinsically to the brain, otherwise Catholic Christianity begins to sound like some kind of weird cult.

  • paul

    Interesting story, but you are being somewhat hypocritical! Now obviously I'm not defending the crazy driver you were talking about, in the same way you are not defending the murders of abortion doctors, but you complain that attacks at abortion clinics in the us are over-hyped, whilst you make a great deal of this madman in Bristol.

    Pro-life campaigner's need to deal with these nut-cases in order to foster constructive debate between both sides. In the United States alone there have been 7 murders, 6 attempted murders, a fake anthrax letters hoax, 41 bombings, 173 arsons, 91 attempted bombings or arsons. Pro-choicers don't behave in this way. – The right-wing extremists please kick them out of you movement, because they are hardly pro-life in that most of them believe in the death penalty!

  • paul

    Thank you for sharing this with us, in this heated debate both sides (me included) sometimes manage to forget the heartbreak involved for a woman or a family to decide whether to keep the pregnancy. I think your brave decision shows the power for good that in some respects abortion can have, as far as I can tell you made the best decision for both you and your pregnancy.

    You have illustrated clearly how this is not a black and white issue, and I wish other Catholics realize that each case is different and actually take the time to think, rather than stay blinkered in a 'one size fits all' ideology that doesn't quite make sense. They should at least take the time to pray for the mother also.

  • paul

    millions of sperm die each day per man and one egg per month per woman. These are the origins of human life yet we hardly mourn their loss. You seem to feel it is dangerous to draw the line anywhere on the development process, yet you yourself draw it at conception when it in fact could come before.

  • paul

    To illustrate the problem with objective morality; did you:
    a) support the Iraq War
    b) support the Afghanistan War
    c) support the Falklands War
    d) agree with Britain's role in WW2
    e) eat meat
    f) agree with the death penalty

    If the answer to any of these is yes than you have contravened the 5th Commandment. Objective morality also mean their are no buts, no dissent and not differences of opinion. So the moment you argue with my unfair list you are agreeing that objective morality is not valid and therefore stating the 5th commandment isn't either

  • paul

    You say that science cannot determine when a soul enters a body, however we all agree that is leaves the body once the brain dies. If my head is taken off by an Axe then my soul leaves there and then; I would not expect you to take the rest of my headless body and try to resuscitate me! When I say headless I mean that the physical connection between my body and my brain has been cut and my brain has ceased to function.

    In the same way, a fetus's brain BEFORE development – basically without a brain, is effectively in the same situation as the person who has had their head removed. A corpse and without soul. Unless you are suggesting that the soul emanates from elsewhere – the the left leg? the right arm?
    Being rational – from around 1-15 weeks the fetus is simply a biological machine, no thoughts, no personality, no mind and no soul. It is however a developing DNA blueprint of a human being which WILL develop, but I do think it odd to argue that it possesses a soul at this stage or it could somehow be a 'tragedy' if it is not allowed to continue developing.

    Also I think you portray Euthanasia quite wrongly; if Euthanasia was a tool to 'allow the murder of the old and the sick' then why is it that the most public proponents of Euthanasia have been those with severely ill with terminal illnesses themselves? Nobody is suggesting this as a way to reduce hospital costs, it is a way for those with little hope to be able to control the last moments of their life pain free, what could be wrong with that?

    There can and will be limits to. Very few would agree with allowing perfectly well, but mentally depressed people to be helped to commit suicide, and this has been ruled out by all British proposals. Euthanasia is a caring approach to the agony that death can be, and it is optional! And where it is legal – in states such as Oregon the take-up rates much lower than expected anyway. Personally I think the Church should condone mercy killing like this.

  • wmc

    A very small point considering the purpose of the article: Warwick c. 1970, a new foundation, state funded, home of EP Thompson, had little in common with Trevor-Roper's Christ Church.

  • Robert Colquhoun

    Great work. Why not get a 40 days for life going in Stoke Mandeville? It's a fantastic project and will really help your work. Do contact me if I can help in anyway. God bless from Robert.

  • Wengpt

    Keep on going with your work. There are some who would like to do what you are doing but do not
    out of fear of what others will say; Be strong – and keep faith! God blesses your work and our Blessed
    Lady of Guadalupe surely, is delighted with your mission for the unborn!