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‘This is how we are going to end abortion’

Phyllis Bowman died a year ago but her vision of a mass movement safeguarding life should continue to inspire us

By on Thursday, 6 June 2013

The March for Life in America. Bowman 
hoped to turn the British 
pro-life lobby into a mass movement for real change

The March for Life in America. Bowman hoped to turn the British pro-life lobby into a mass movement for real change

It often takes lives of heroic virtue to remind us that love is not merely a noun signifying a set of salutary sentiments, but rather a verb indicating action. If ever a life could constitute such a reminder, it was the life of Phyllis Bowman, the first anniversary of whose passing occurred this month, and in whose honour a lecture was recently held in Parliament by another heroic figure, the blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng.

One of the most important figures and leaders of the British pro-life cause, Phyllis was a mentor and dear friend to many, including myself. It has been difficult to get used to not having her razor-sharp judgment and political nous to help guide us, and her strong-yet-gentle personality to bless us. Her legacy however, lives on, as pro-life campaigners and politicians carry forward the work to which she dedicated her life, in defence of the unborn child, the pregnant woman, the terminally ill patient, the disabled, and many other vulnerable people.

In this work, and a year after she went to her reward, now that the wound of losing her is not so raw, we should recall and reconsider the style, attitude, and strategic approach that made Phyllis such an important, inspiring and effective person. These are not only perennially useful principles, but I believe they are more relevant than ever in the effort to build and sustain an effective campaign to safeguard the dignity, and most basic rights, of all human beings.

Phyllis was a practical idealist. Knowing what was at stake – the very lives of others – she had no truck with useless, self-indulgent grandstanding, but wanted to effect real political change. She had the vision to propose and arrange the inauguration of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group (APPPLG), the central means of discussion and vehicle for action on legislation that affects the right to life, particularly that of the unborn. She later also set up Right to Life (RTL), an organisation dedicated to this political battle, and to supporting and securing the future of the APPPLG.

Phyllis achieved both these key parts of her life’s work precisely because she knew the necessity of working with right-minded politicians, winning votes in Parliament, and creating momentum for the pro-life cause by incremental legislative change. Phyllis argued for winning battles on the “grounds” on which abortion can take place, starting with a proper enforcement of the law (which does not allow for abortion on demand), and later urging change on its smaller elements, such as discrimination against disabled babies or parental notification for abortions on teenage girls. Legislative efforts however, often focused on reducing the “upper limit” for abortion. This ultimately only achieved a reduction in 1991 from 28 weeks to 24 weeks, and helped solidify the perception in Parliament that this limit should be based on when an unborn child is “viable” (even though this is not at all the basis of the law).

It now seems obvious that little progress, if any, is possible on the weeks issue. Developments like the recently held parliamentary inquiry on abortion and disability, however, show that reform in precisely that area might be possible and thus how prophetic Phyllis’s strategic concerns truly were.

Her strong political sense also extended to another great campaigning virtue: the gift of focus. Many peripheral activists, particularly devoutly Christian ones, want the pro-life campaign to subsume (or be subsumed by) concerns about other issues that are tangential to it, such as same-sex marriage. This is folly, as it alienates people who could be supporters of the right to life, were they not turned off by those who conflate the fight to secure this right, with separate and divisive social issues. Phyllis refused to allow this to happen, campaigning only on those things that directly threaten or violate the right to life: abortion, embryonic experimentation, assisted death, euthanasia, population control and pernicious government teenage pregnancy “strategies”.

This focus allows the pro-life message to have a simple consistency that, when articulated in terms of the right concern for human dignity, maximises its appeal to all people of goodwill. Phyllis knew that such an authentic framing of the issues, and the consequent allowing of a breadth of potential support, was indispensable in achieving pro-life objectives in the short term, as well as in building a movement that will one day secure big achievements. This pluralism was another forward thinking element of her approach, and why the case she made was secular, and scrupulously based on evidence.

Some Catholic activists have long preferred an alternative model – religiose, confessional, limited in its appeal to their own particular constituency. This contrasts markedly with the attitude that Phyllis, herself a devout Catholic, would take. Most days, members of RTL would have the opportunity to pray the chaplet of the Divine Mercy with her at three o’clock, for all those souls who were about to die. She would frequently pray three Hail Marys for the sake of an urgent intention. Yet she never forced her religion on to anyone, and knew both the toxicity of a sectarian presentation of the pro-life case and the futility of alienating even the lightest of potential supporters.

Finally, Phyllis was pragmatically compassionate and a true feminist. The Right to Life Charitable Trust, which she was instrumental in setting up, gives vital material aid to expectant mothers, as well as hospital patients receiving end-of-life care. She held that pro-lifers had to put their money where their mouths were, and enable women in crisis pregnancies to keep and care for their child, as well as safeguard the proper care of those who are ill and in danger of ill-treatment. More work (and innovative thinking) needs to be done in these areas, but the necessity of such efforts was beyond doubt in Phyllis’s mind.

This, then, is “Bowmanism”: pragmatic principles and practices, ordered to a vision of making the British pro-life lobby into a mass movement for real change. Such a movement has to be grounded in an ethic of human dignity and focused on the effort to protect the right to life of all human beings.

It must be committed to a secular and evidence-based approach to the issues, with a pluralistic appeal, uniting people from different backgrounds in affirming and articulating what everyone may recognise: the moral and political necessity of protecting the most basic rights of all people, especially the most vulnerable members of our society. Allied with like-minded MPs and Peers, this movement must strive to slowly but surely build principles of compassion and justice in the law, as well as a culture of life, and the practical means by charitable work and social reform that might help remove the perceived need for abortion or assisted death.

As a passionate Bowmanite, I know much more could and should be said on the way forward for the pro-life campaign. I believe, however, that no surer way could be found to change our society – and our laws – for the better, than to heed Phyllis’s wisdom, and apply it rigorously in the struggle for true rights and equality that we all have an undeniable duty to take part in.

Peter D Williams is a writer, pro-life activist and Catholic apologist. For more information about the Right to Life Charitable Trust, visit Righttolifetrust.org.uk or call 01732 460911

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald dated 31/5/13

  • Chris Ranmore

    End abortion? Clearly that’s not going to happen when abortion rates are higher in countries where it is illegal. Women will always make their own choices.

  • Guest

    This is a bizarre article, which says nothing about the many years that Phyllis Bowman was director of SPUC. During those years the prolife movement achieved little if anything. Then Phyllis Bowman went on to lead Right to Life saying what was needed was not a mass organisation but a small ‘lean machine.’ Similarly, during those years little if anything was achieved.
    I met Phyllis many times and found her an inspiring person in some respects – but not in others. I’m not going to say more as I don’t think it is fitting to speak ill of the dead. I don’t doubt Phyllis’ good intentions and pray she enjoys her eternal reward – but to present her as an icon for the pro-life movement when virtually everything she did ended in failure is incomprehensible. Surely the answer to the pro-life movement’s woes would be to learn from the mistakes she, SPUC and Right to Life have made – and do things differently in future!

  • Guest

    This is a bizarre article, which says nothing about the many years that Phyllis Bowman was director of SPUC. During those years the prolife movement achieved little if anything. Then Phyllis Bowman went on to lead Right to Life saying what was needed was not a mass organisation but a small ‘lean machine.’ Similarly, during those years little if anything was achieved.

    I met Phyllis several times and found her an inspiring person in some respects – but not in others. I’m not going to say more as I don’t think it is fitting to speak ill of the dead. I don’t doubt Phyllis’ good intentions and pray she enjoys her eternal reward – but to present her as an icon for the pro-life movement when virtually everything she did politically ended in failure is incomprehensible. Surely the answer to the pro-life movement’s woes would be to learn from the mistakes she, SPUC and Right to Life have made – and do things differently in future!

  • Chris Ranmore

    I don’t think you can blame Phyllis for the failure – the argument was lost years ago and there’s no chance of reversing the law. Even if this happened abortion would continue illegally but it would return to being a public health disaster. The only realistic option for reducing abortion is improving education and access to contraception. That’s why the Netherlands has been so successful in reducing abortion and countries with strong “pro-life” movements have so obviously failed.

  • paulpriest

    Given opinion regarding this article is prohibited
    Am I at least permitted to state that any reader should compare & contrast this article claiming to be “Bowmanism” with the words of the Lady herself?
    – and judge accordingly!

    http://loveundefiled.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/interview-with-phyllis-bowman-of-right.html

  • agent.provocateur

    The murder of innocent babies will end, sooner or later. Of course illegal abortions will rise in those times, but the criminals who will perform them will be detained and punished as murderers. Simple.

  • ostrava

    It went on before the Act of 1967 and few of those concerned were brought to trial.

  • SoCalChick

    It was also the single-minded focus of the British women’s fight, for the right to vote, that inspired and informed American women in this same regard. In fact, the Bowmanism approach that is ‘no side issues, please’ was the route that in the end, successfully won the vote for American women. Furthermore, it is a little known piece of American history that in fact there were two groups in the U.S. focused on gaining the right to vote. One group was single-mindedly focused on the acquisition of this right and a Constitutional amendment as the means to win it. The other group was bogged down in a number of Socialist side issues and employed a losing, state-by-state approach. R.I.P. Phyllis Bowman and thank you for your legacy.

  • Itllallcomeoutsoon

    It all may end, we must hope, but the desire for abortion must end first. Let us deal with the fallacy that the choice is good for women. Induced abortion doubles the risk of losing a wanted baby in a subsequent pregnancy and it probably doubles the risk of cerebral palsy in a subsequent “wanted child”. Lets tell the whole truth. Contraception causes abortion. Including condoms! It gives you licence to have sex with people when you don’t want a baby and it doesn’t work. There you are.

  • AugustineThomas

    Abortion may or may not end before the world does..

    Evil itself definitely won’t. That doesn’t mean we stop fighting it!

  • Kevin

    “Some Catholic activists have long preferred an alternative model – religious, confessional, limited in its appeal to their own particular constituency.”

    If you are going to dish it out you should be prepared to take it: the secular pro-life movement has achieved nothing in this country. How can it, when its message seems to be “Carry on being permissive, with all that entails, just don’t have abortions”?

    Man’s creation by God is the reason why abortion is wrong. And given that we clearly need God’s help in all our endeavours a logical first step would be to stand up for Him before men.

  • http://www.catholicyouthwork.com Catholic Youth Work

    Brilliant article Peter. Thank you :)

  • ed77

    So abortion would be acceptable for an atheist then?

  • ed77

    That is precisely what the article is! An explanation of what pro-lifers have learned from the lack of success since 1967

  • ed77

    Abortion rates are not higher in countries where it is illegal, this is an un-evidenced assertion.

  • ed77

    See my response above.

  • ed77

    Worth listening to as she clearly affirms Peter’s description of Bowmanism.

  • paulpriest

    Ed that’s a downright ‘economy of the truth’ to Nick Leeson/Dick Turpin proportions…did you actually listen to a word of her long list of regrets and mistakes in strategy and resolved new tactics and plans for the future?

    Obviously not – as you all seem to be old-fashioned business as usual while Peter rants on denouncing solidaritism as ‘unconscionable’ and attacking those who try to save lives with foetal imagery…

    You’re screwed unless you actually listen to the woman and stop reinventing her memory in your own image…I’m serious!!!

  • ed77

    Chris that is absurd we have all kinds of contraception freely available on the NHS and yet we have one of the highest abortion rates in Western Europe

  • Maidrin Rua

    Phyllis Bowman was the first pro life speaker I ever heard, and hers is the vision of pro life that I try to abide by

  • Maidrin Rua

    Not true. For example, abortion rate in Rep of Ireland (where abortion is illegal) is 13% as opposed to 56% in England and Wales http://www.jpands.org/vol18no2/calhoun.pdf

  • Chris Ranmore

    We have the poorest Sex Education is Europe, particularly in Catholic schools.

  • ed77

    I listened to the whole thing. And I (and Peter Williams) had the privilege of listening to her in the last years of her life. Which you didn’t. Her and Peter were entirely at one on the strategy. I repeat there are no contradictions between what Peter has written and what Phyllis espoused either in the audio you posted or in the several conversations I had with her since getting to know her.

  • paulpriest

    Wrong – one every count – I can only urge you to HEAR rather than listen; but at this stage you’ve all made it abundantly clear that you don’t want to know; ideology has replaced any true resolve to do the good and prevent evil. Sorry but you leave me no choice but to walk away. You’re wrong, deadly wrong, and the secularising agenda is going to lead to millions of more deaths over the next generations…and you will handwring and make every attempt to repeat the proven-failing strategies while the genocide continues.

  • ed77

    ‘Secularising agenda’ ?