Today’s feature is cross-posted from Niall Gooch who is a Research & Education Officer for the charity LIFE. He is married, with a son due to be born any minute now, and lives in London. He is writing in a personal capacity. With the NZ Green Party continuing their push for an extreme abortion law in New Zealand, his call for pro-lifers to take an active role in shaping society’s attitude to life issues via politics applies to New Zealand just as much as it does in the UK.
I’m occasionally asked by school pupils and students how they can best help the pro-life cause. There are many ways to answer this question, but I personally have three top recommendations for how an enthusiastic young person might serve the pro-life movement in 2015. He or she should consider becoming (a) an epidemiologist/statistician, (b) a novelist/TV writer/film-maker, or (c) rich. The pro-life movement needs more people who can understand, explain and carry out scientific research, it needs to capture people’s moral imagination, and it always, always needs a bit more cash.
There is of course another area where pro-lifers with conviction, courage, expertise and integrity are much needed: politics. There are numerous organisations doing all sorts of good pro-life work in the UK. Some specialise in school talks, others in crisis pregnancy counselling, others in media work – and then of course there is the much-needed work of student pro-life organisations, equipping, encouraging and supporting students all over the country, and carving out spaces where pro-life activism and debate can happen, often in the teeth of fierce opposition.
Most of the big decisions about life issues are ultimately made at Westminster, and to a lesser extent in the various devolved legislatures at Stormont, Holyrood and Cardiff. In our democracy, the various national legislatures are where laws are passed and policies are set and regulations are examined. It’s where the rubber hits the road. As I write this post in mid-January, the House of Lords are debating assisted suicide. The Scottish Parliament will be following suit shortly. The Northern Ireland assembly is reviewing abortion law, while a committee of the House of Commons is about to debate the regulations for the introduction of mitochondrial donation (aka “three-parent IVF”). The effective use of parliamentary questions played an important role in bringing to light some of the big abortion-related stories that emerged last year – notably the General Medical Council cover-up of the pre-signing of abortion authorisation forms. Pro-life MPs and peers have used one-off debates to hold the government’s feet to the fire and maintain a high-profile for life issues.
It can be tempting to file politics under “too difficult”. It’s easy to be cynical and defeatist about politicians and the process of legislating. I often hear people write off all MPs as mere self-interested, uninspiring lobby-fodder. I’ve done it myself. But it’s not really fair.
There are some fantastically hard-working and admirable pro-life people in politics. Lord David Alton is an obvious example, but there are many others. Take Fiona Bruce MP, who is Chair of the All-Party Pro-life Group. I know from personal experience that she is totally dedicated to the pro-life cause, among many other worthy campaigns, and works incredibly hard within and without the House of Commons. Ms Bruce’s commitment to the sanctity of human life might well have cost her any chance of promotion under the current Conservative leadership. Across the floor, Labour’s Rob Flello is a similarly principled and energetic pro-lifer.
Pro-life parliamentary work is hard. There are plenty of MPs and peers who will happily vote pro-life, or at least can be cajoled or persuaded into doing so if an opportunity presents itself, as we saw in November when Fiona Bruce’s Abortion (Sex Selection) Bill passed First Reading by 181 votes to 1. However, the number of MPs and peers who will be proactive in the pro-life cause, who will show up to meetings and put down parliamentary questions and risk genuine unpopularity to create parliamentary opportunities, is considerably smaller. To use a military metaphor, everyone’s keen to reinforce the enemy position once it’s been captured. Not many people want to do the actual capturing. There is a real need in politics for MPs who are willing to fearlessly put abortion, assisted suicide and embryo technology front and centre of their agenda.
Politics doesn’t just mean becoming an MP, of course. Pro-life MPs need researchers and assistants and advisors. They need people to look up information and write speeches. They need support from their local party. They need people to knock on doors for them on rainy Tuesday evenings and raise money £200 at a time at raffles and jumble sales.
One other vital point for pro-lifers to remember, in my view, is that our issues transcend party politics and are more important than almost any other issue. If we have an MP who is pro-life, or nearly pro-life, or even just the most pro-life MP standing in our constituency, we ought to consider lending them our support even if they are not from the party for which we usually vote. I remember hearing Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, a loyal Conservative, say that if he had lived in the constituency of the late great Jim Dobbin, he would have voted Labour, despite Jim’s traditional Old Labour beliefs, because Jim was totally committed to the pro-life cause and, fundamentally, that was more important than whether we should nationalise the railways or reintroduce the 50p tax rate.
I do not want to suggest that the extra-Parliamentary aspects of the pro-life movement are in any way less worthwhile or less important than what happens in our various parliaments. The point is that the two aspects of the work are symbiotic; each needs the other. The various political initiatives give the pro-life cause as a whole focus and national leadership, and a chance of long-lasting structural change, while the various grass-roots groups provide ready-made campaigning networks, moral support, and make a difference at the level of the individual or the small community.
It is my firm conviction that pro-lifers can and must improve their engagement with politics and be ready to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty in the political game. Yes, not everyone is suited to it, and yes it is difficult and sometimes dispiriting. Sometimes achieving pro-life goals in politics means that we have to compromise, or accept incremental improvements that are less than we originally wanted. But ask yourself this – if pro-lifers aren’t at the centre of the debate, then who will be?
The old saying is as true today as it ever was:
Decisions are made by those who show up.