Interview - Parliament and the pro-life movement
Joanna Bogle meets members of the Parliamentary all-party pro-life group at a special event in Westminster
The Houses of Parliament look strange at present, with massive scaffolding blocking off the gothic spires and Big Ben’s clock face obliterated under the great network of metal and wooden struts. Inside, it was business-as-usual and people were gathering in a Committee Room for a major event with the Parliamentary pro-life group: Lord Alton, Baroness O’Loan, and Fiona Bruce MP were attending the presentation of the 2018 Westminster Award in a Committee Room in the Palace of Westminster. The Editor of FAITH magazine was among those invited to the event.
The Award is presented annually to a group or individual working to uphold “human rights, human life and human dignity””. It is administered by the Right to Life movement and was launched in honour of Phyllis Bowman, who was a leading figure in opposing abortion from the late 1960s onwards and who died in 2012. Previous recipients have included Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese human rights lawyer, and Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow of the charity Mary’s Meals.
The 2018 Award went to a young Catholic, Katie Ascough, who was ousted as a student leader in Dublin for taking a stand for freedom of speech, insisting that the pro-abortion message was not the only one that should be allowed, and that the law should be obeyed.
Katie was elected President of the Student Union at Dublin University - her particular concerns were student accommodation and welfare. When the student union produced a guidebook with information on how to obtain an abortion she became aware that it could be illegal under Irish law and blocked it. For this she was impeached by the Student Union and removed from office.
Lord Alton told FAITH magazine: “Katie Ascough bravely refused to distribute advertising to promote the ending of lives through abortion. She refused to be bullied into breaking Irish law and she courageously upheld the principle of freedom of speech.”
A number of universities across the Western world are now attempting to ban pro-life speakers. At Dublin, Katie joined a “Yes for neutrality” campaign on the question of students’ action on Ireland and abortion. She made no secret of the fact that she was opposed to abortion and had been active in student pro-life groups, and made it clear that she felt both sides of the argument should always be heard. Accepting the Westminster Award, she said “University should a place of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of association. Fairness, respect for those who don’t wish to break the law, and respect for others with different beliefs, are critical to debate and intellectual freedom on campus.”
Presenting the Award, Fiona Bruce MP of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life group told us about the background:
“Elected as President of University College Dublin’s Student Union in March last year on a platform to improve issues like student mental health and accommodation, Katie was attacked from the beginning of her candidacy for her pro-life views.
“Threats to impeach Katie for her right-to-life convictions went back to her Election, but became a reality when she had a page containing information on abortion access removed from the Union’s Freshers’ magazine, ‘Winging It’, after receiving legal advice that it may have been illegal. As CEO of the Union, Katie would have been legally responsible, and potentially risked a criminal record.
“All this effort shows a woman of strength, of intelligence, of deep principle, and of wonderful witness to societies across the West that badly need to open minds and hearts to the dignity and humanity of unborn children, and for that to happen, to be open to discussion and tolerance, especially in universities.”
The all-party Parliamentary pro-life group is not large, but it is dedicated and brings together a range of knowledge and public service. Fiona Bruce MP is a solicitor, born in the Scottish Highlands, and is MP for Congleton. She earlier served for some years as a borough councillor in Warrington. Among her Parliamentary activities has been a planned Bill to make abortion on the grounds of a baby’s sex illegal. The measure was rejected in the House of Commons by 292 votes to 201.
Mrs Bruce is a member of the Evangelical Alliance. She is married with two sons and has been a Member of Parliament since 2010.
Baroness (Nuala) O’Loan has been a noted public figure in Northern Ireland and was the first Police Ombudsman, serving from 1999 to 2007. The pro-life group is involved on a range of issues, and Baroness O’Loan has been active in promoting legislation to protect the consciences of medical practitioners who refuse to involve themselves in any way in the taking of human life. She is emphatic that “Reasonable accommodation of conscientious objection is a matter both of liberty and equality: of individual freedom and social inclusion. No one should be coerced by the risk to their careers into violating their conscience, and it is plainly inconsistent with the principles of equality legislation to exclude whole sections of society from areas of medical employment simply because of their moral beliefs”.
Following the Westminster Award presentation we gathered in Westminster Hall – site of so many major events in Parliamentary and national life - and grouped for commemorative photographs. It was here, of course, in 1535 that St Thomas More was tried, and here in 2010 that Pope Benedict XVI spoke to a massed gathering of people from Parliament and public life and urged a message of freedom centred on respect for moral truths. A fitting place for a gathering of pro-life campaigners.