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 the subject of abortion and disability, however, show that reform of precisely that area of the Abortion Act 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 utter 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 o¹clock, 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 with unplanned 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 to the struggle for true rights and equality in which we all have an undeniable duty to take part.
(This piece was originally published in the Catholic Herald.)