Since my Catholic ordination I have said Mass on a regular basis for the Good Counsel Network, which promotes Catholic pro-life teaching , and gives practical and emotional support to couples and single mothers choosing not to abort an unplanned pregnancy.
Yesterday I went to join them for two hours of prayer outside a London abortion clinic where they are holding a Novena (nine days) vigil. I found it a disturbing experience, and I came away with even greater respect for those (many of them young) who struggle against the abortion culture which is now almost unquestioned as a ‘right’ in British society.
This particular clinic is situated in one of London’s smartest suburbs, in a street of large houses. There is nothing to identify the purpose of the clinic, unless you understand ‘BPAS’ as British Pregnancy Advisory Service on the notice at the entrance gate. One of the Good Counsel workers stood not far from the gate, and offered a leaflet to everyone entering; in some cases she had a quiet discussion. I was on the opposite side of the road, for most of the time praying the rosary. My first ‘encounter’ was when a smartly dressed woman (who was not going in to the clinic) called out at me that I should have brought a picnic as I was obviously settling in! By and large people passed us without a second glance, until a woman in her 40’s, I guess, approached me and the priest who had now joined us. She demanded to know where we were from and why we were cluttering a residential street with all our stuff. (A modest picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a folding stool for me to sit on and ease my back, and a bag!) When the other priest reminded her of the place of quiet protest in our democratic society, she continued her objections on the grounds that we were ‘Americanising’ the whole business. She declared herself to be a practising Catholic, and was especially angry at the suggestion that we would want to witness outside a ghetto where, for example, Jewish people were being put to death, and yet we must apparently not protest at the abortions going on inside the clinic.
I was stunned that a Catholic lay-woman could be more willing to protest to her local Council about clutter on the pavement, than about the presence of an abortion clinic in her road. But as I realise now the consciences of the huge majority of us have become blunted to what goes on so discretely. And yet it would be unthinkable for someone at a dinner party to announce, ‘I was in hospital last week, just day surgery for an abortion.’ And when a few days ago a new and much safer test for Downs Syndrome during pregnancy was announced, the BBC newsreader did not say, ‘thus making the abortion of the foetus much more certain’. Most people know deep within themselves that it should not happen: that it is wrong.
Government statistics tell us that in 2013 there were just over 185,000 abortions in the UK. That is a shocking number, and future generations will look back in horror at how we could have let this happen: only by closing our eyes, hurrying past the clinics, and refusing to discuss it. No wonder people get so cross with Catholics for daring to continue their quiet but insistent opposition. The phrase ‘back-street abortions’ was used to condemn a society which refused to admit that something nasty as termination of pregnancy went on in our midst. Has anything changed?