It was raining heavily when I arrived in London on the morning of 27th October, but by the time I got to Parliament Square at around 11:30AM the sun had come out and the rain would not resume until after the event. By that time pro-lifers were already gathering ahead of the Solemn Witness, which was due to begin at noon. We were there to commemorate the lives lost in the 56 years to the day since the Abortion Act received royal assent, and to share the message that, in the words of Monsignor Keith Newton, ‘Respect for the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of life begins at conception.’
Since that fateful October day in 1967, 10,256,050 children’s lives have been ended through legal abortion, a number which continues to rise, with 2021 (the last year for which statistics are available) having the highest abortion rate since legalisation.
Volunteers displaying signs and banners lined the green, while others unfurled a huge banner on the lawn. Meanwhile, in the shadow of the statue of Millicent Fawcett – the prolific suffragist who entered the civil rights arena in her early twenties and famously announced, ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere,’ – pro-life speakers were heard providing encouragement for the movement in Britain and reflecting upon the present situation, a situation which may seem dire, given that not only is the scourge of abortion, that ‘terrible invasion of God’s workshop,’ as Christian Concern’s Ben John put it, still very much with us, but those who speak out and seek to raise awareness to remedy the wrongs of the past 56 years now face persecution of a kind many would have thought impossible in the West just five or ten years ago. As Adam Smith-Connor commented, ‘This is England in 2023.’
Adam made news this year when charges were brought against him for praying silently outside an abortion provider in Bournemouth. Speaking in Parliament Square, Jeremiah Igunnoble, Legal Counsel for ADF (Alliance Defending Freedom), said, ‘We’re not discussing the issue itself, we’re debating whether we’re allowed to debate the issue.’
Reflecting upon the task of overcoming the legal and cultural barriers faced by pro-life missionaries in Britain today, Monsignor Keith commented, ‘It’s very difficult to be counter-cultural, but the whole of the Christian faith is actually counter-cultural today.’
And surely that is part of the significance of an event like this, that, as Isabel emphasised on the day, ‘We can all do something,’ but to call people to action and bring about a real and lasting cultural change requires an initial witness the like of which Christian movements have provided time and again over the past two millennia, bearing in mind the scripture, ‘As the father sent me, so am I sending you’ (Jn. 20:21), with world-shaping results.
When asked her own reason for attending, ADF’s Delphine Chui told me:
‘I came to witness and commemorate the millions of unborn lives lost, and the millions of women and men impacted by the trauma of abortion because we should never forget, as a society, the sanctity and preciousness of life. It’s too easy in today’s modern world where convenience is king to be ignorant to what abortion actually is. I was ignorant! A choice that ends a life isn’t pro- woman, it’s very much anti-woman, anti-children and anti-family. Women and unborn babies deserve better.’
One takeaway from the Witness is that, in spite of the grim situation, from the steadfastness of seasoned pro-life missionaries like Adam to the witness of Christian medical professionals such as Dr Dermot Kearney and the increasing awareness and involvement of a younger generation in the conversation around abortion, there is much cause for hope and optimism.
23-year-old Honor Roberts, 40 Days for Life Oxford Leader, said, ‘I think our culture talks so much about equality and consent and protection from violence and compassion and all these kinds of things, and I think it’s becoming more and more obvious that the very people who need to be protected, the most vulnerable people, don’t have their basic fundamental right to life. And I think young people are waking up to that.’
The Witness concluded with a beautiful testimony from Natanya, a post- abortive woman who suffered the loss of 3 of her children, Levi, Mercy and Nancy Grace, to abortion and spoke about the pressure she faced at the hands of an ex-partner and workers in the abortion industry. ‘It was such a relief to know that there were people who cared and that God does forgive me,’ said Natanya, speaking of the healing and community she discovered after attending a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat. ‘I learned about His compassion and divine mercy, which was a side of God I never really knew before.’
That’s what events like this are really all about, not about protesting something the average citizen already knows to be wrong given 2 minutes to consider the matter, but bearing witness to compassion and mercy, to let our society know that there is another way, a better way, than the prevailing culture of death. To remind ourselves and others that life is not a problem to be dealt with, but a gift to be treasured. As Ben John said, ‘Every year we need that reminder. … We cannot become complacent.’
A bagpiper played Amazing Grace as proceedings drew to a close, and when the final notes had rung out in the Square, the volunteers set down their signs and headed home. As Honor and I walked back down to Westminster Cathedral, the heavens opened once again. We had enjoyed a few hours of light amid the murk and rain, and a faithful witness to the Gospel of Life in the very place where the destruction of innocent human life was made legal 56 years ago.