In her last major interview, published on March 2, veteran campaigner Phyllis Bowman talked to Madeleine Teahan about her 45-year ‘battle for the baby’
On October 28 1967 Phyllis Bowman lay awake in the small hours of the night and began to cry. Her husband sat beside her and asked
her what was wrong.
“He said: ‘What are you crying for?’” she recalls. “I replied: ‘I know we have lost the vote.’ I don’t know how I knew, I just knew. And he said: ‘But you didn’t ever really think that we were ever going to defeat the Government?’”
But Bowman’s husband had misunderstood. “That isn’t it,” she told him. “I’ll never see this country without abortion again.”
Bowman is describing that memorable night at her home in west London. We have just had a lunch of salmon, bread and butter. Although at 85 Bowman shows signs of frailty she is the perfect hostess, offering me a glass of sherry and diligently wiping the already-clean dining table.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that a woman who works tirelessly to promote human dignity is herself so dignified. She pats her neat hair and apologises because she thinks it is not up to its usual standard. Her manners are impeccable and her devotion toward her husband, Gerry, is indefatigable.
I am slightly intimidated by her but sporadically a gentleness peeps through her tough exterior. No doubt she resisted the Abortion Act like a Rottweiler. And yet when defeat came she sat and sobbed with heartfelt sorrow for unborn children who would not survive the Act.
When this realisation dawned on her, she says: “I knew then that I had to fight. But I would never see complete victory. Had
I thought I would see complete victory I would have given up years ago.”
Bowman was not always pro-life. At the beginning of her career as a Fleet Street journalist she also sub-edited the paper for the Royal Hospital and Home for Incurables. It was 1966, the era of the Thalidomide scandal, which propelled the abortion debate to the political stage with the help of David Steel’s Private Member’s Bill.
“I believed in abortion,” she says, “and I used to go into the hospital and think that they would be much better off if they had never been born.”
But by 1970 Bowman’s life had changed dramatically. Not only was she mourning a world without legal abortion, she was also mourning her first husband, who had died suddenly. She had converted to Catholicism and was now absolutely convinced of the rights of the unborn child. Bowman had consequently helped to establish the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) in January 1967.
As she talks, it becomes clear that in those formative years her love for the unborn child and for the Catholic faith reinforced one another – and still do. Also, her empathy with the disabled means that she will not forget them now in what she calls her “battle for the baby”. I ask if this would still be the case if setting them aside temporarily meant achieving a reduction in the time limit for abortion for social reasons from 24 to 20 weeks.
“No,” she says firmly. “I’ve been down that road. It doesn’t work. It just does not work. I’ll always remember Germaine Greer writing a piece in the Times and saying that she had a lot of patience and respect for the absolutists, but she was completely baffled by those who would fight for the right to life for one and not the other. You confuse people. You confuse people on the whole ideology of what it means to be human.”
The abortion debate was reignited in Parliament last September when Nadine Dorries attempted to change the law relating to abortion counselling. Her defeat prompted accusations that the pro-life movement was too divided to be effective. Bowman rejects this suggestion passionately.
“It’s a lovely excuse to say that the pro-life groups can’t agree among themselves. You’ll always have a person who can’t agree. There is one splinter group and they’re very good at publicity and raising money.”
This “splinter group”, in her view, is SPUC. Bowman voluntarily set the wheels in motion for her resignation as director of SPUC in time for her 70th birthday. John Smeaton was to succeed her. But in 1998 an acrimonious meeting led to her departure from SPUC.
“We walked out and went to the pub,” she recalls, “and someone said: ‘Well, that’s the end of the battle for the baby.’ And I said: ‘No, it isn’t. I’m starting another organisation.’ ”
Her husband was incredulous. “You must be mad!” he told her. “I’m not mad!” She retorted. “We don’t have an option. I’m not setting up in competition against them. I’m setting up something so we can fight for the baby.”
Right to Life was launched in January 1999 and Bowman has led the organisation ever since.
But Bowman feels that the bishops of England and Wales have failed to support her campaign. She tells me that she was once allowed to communicate to Catholics in the pews about the importance of casting their vote, until the publication of the bishops’ guidance for the 1997 election, The Common Good.
“This got us banned from a number of churches,” she says. “We couldn’t do anything because the Church teaching is The Common Good and The Common Good is not Church teaching at all.”
Later in the interview she explains: “My husband always says: ‘The Church in this country began to fall down when the bishops got their first invitation to the Buckingham Palace garden party.’ I used to think that was very funny, but it’s true. Because of the bishops’ predisposition to Labour we have been sold down the river.”
When Labour won a landslide victory in 1997 Bowman, a floating voter, immediately recognised the political reality that she now faced. She arranged a lunch with key MPs, who decided that they would block any amendment concerning abortion as they knew that the numbers were against them.
But Bowman tells me wistfully that she played this strategy for too long.
“So when Nadine Dorries came tearing forward with her Bill to reduce the abortion limit to 20 weeks there was a huge sigh of relief because at last someone was doing something, regardless of why she was doing it and what it would result in,” she says. “I think that was my worst mistake and I blame myself for Nadine Dorries.”
Dorries’s recent intervention exasperated Bowman and others because of what they see as a unilateral approach by the outspoken MP. Bowman tells me that Dorries’s defeat has set the pro-life cause back. But then what are the odds of reducing abortions with our current Parliament?
“They’re not high,” she admits. “But we fight tooth and nail on parental consent. In America they have been very effective in cutting down teenage abortions and teenage sexually transmitted infections.”
How do we build what Blessed Pope John Paul II called the “culture of life”? Might her approach perhaps be too narrow? SPUC, for example, is campaigning against the legalisation of same-sex marriage, seeing it as part of a wider pro-life battle. But despite her opposition to gay marriage, Bowman argues that pro-life groups should not take an official view on the issue for fear of alienating their gay members. She tells me about a friend who had become repulsed by sexual relations with men due to an abusive marriage and is now in a relationship with another woman.
“She’s gay,” Bowman says. “But she really is pro-life. While she was pregnant she had uncontrolled blood pressure and she was under pressure to abort the baby.
I’ll never forget: she dragged herself from that hospital bed and she called me and said: ‘You have to get here and explain that I would rather die than let them touch the baby.’ ”
Following Bowman’s intervention the hospital saved both the mother and the baby, who is now Bowman’s goddaughter.
By now Bowman and I have been talking for over an hour and a half and I can see that she is anxious to check on her husband, who is unwell. To conclude, I ask her if her successor at Right to Life should be female, given that abortion is often presented as a woman’s issue.
“I think that’s absolute rubbish!” she exclaims.
“Just as I’ve never believed in that nonsense about priests pretending not to be priests. We’re all voters. Amen.”