Robert: So we are here this morning with David Alton. Who, for 18 years, was a member of the House of Commons. Today he is in the House of Lords, as an independent cross bench life peer. He began his career as a teacher, but he was elected to the City Council in Liverpool as the youngest Councillor there. He joined the House of Commons in 1979. In 1997, he was made a life peer of the House of Lords.
David, it’s really a pleasure to be with you here today. It’s really great to come and ask your experience and expertise, specifically on the issue of abortion and your personal political experience in this field. Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview.
David: My pleasure.
Robert: Why has there not been a more serious legislative attempt in the last 20 years to bring either a bill or political influence on the issue of abortion? Has it been because of the negative experience in 1990 or are there other reasons?
David: I certainly think that the experiences of 1988 and 1990 weighed on people’s minds during the five or six years that followed. And then the 1997 General Election radically changed the political climate. The election of a Labour Government with a very significant majority, and which clearly overwhelmingly supported the status quo, meant that there would be inherent dangers in bringing forward Bills or attempt to the abortion legislation.
If you open the Pandora’s Box, knowing that there is a huge majority stacked against you, then the danger is the law would be made even more permissive. That might include the removal of the two doctors requirement on the green forms authorizing abortion, which we know is one of the objectives of the pro-abortion lobby. It might involve the dilution of the conscience clause which we know irritates many within the pro-abortion movement.
It might also involve the extension of legislation to Northern Ireland over the head of the NI assembly. So there are dangers, but this should not imply that nothing has been going on, on a legislative front or that nothing has been done at Westminster during this period. The issue is constantly raised through questions and through debates, through reports like the recent report that was undertaken on the disability clause that allows abortion up to and even during birth on a child with a disability.
We have promoted a whole series of initiatives on issues like gender abortion; highlighting the exports of our own abortion culture to come to us in a developing world; but also highlighting the aggressive, corrosive policies in countries like China. We hosted, for instance, Chen Guangcheng who suffered for years in prison and helped secure his release and we brought him here to Westminster to honour him with an award.
We also staged the premier of a pro-life movie called Doonby .
All this is about trying to stimulate debate and discussion.
Pope Francis is right when he says that if you want to see changes in legislation the first thing we have to do is to re-evangelize society. Unless there is a change in the hearts and minds of people in this country we won’t change the hearts and minds of the people who are elected to Parliament. There is no point in simply demanding bills be brought forward if those bills aren’t going to go anywhere. When I introduced my bill in 1987, it was after I carefully weighed out whether I could achieve a parliamentary majority for it or not.
Robert: Can you describe what it’s like to be at the center of a political debate on abortion like that in 1988 and what was the experience, what are some of the stories, controversy and conflict you experienced?
David: The first thing I recall is the warning I was given that bringing forward such a private members bill would break me personally and would destroy me politically.
People pointed to the experience of John Corey who had brought forward a private members bill a couple years earlier. I was warned that it would be personally foolhardy and politically disastrous. I weighed this up and considered what point would there be in promoting such a bill. I concluded that there was a need to reopen the debate about abortion. At the very outset I concluded that the possibility of actually getting a bill through parliament was remote, but I also calculated that I might be able to get a parliamentary majority for my bill. I knew that this would provide the pro-life movement with a dose of oxygen which it really needed. After all in 1967, when I was still at school, when the original legislation was passed, only 29 members of the House of Commons voted against that bill.
By the time the debate on my own bill has been concluded and the second reading vote was taken in January 1988, some 296-70’s by majority of 45 voted for its second reading. The bill never lost a vote at any stage. More than a million cards arrived at parliament, cards and letters supporting the bill. It put the pro-life issue back firmly on the agenda.
The point of doing private member bills or the point in trying to amend the legislation isn’t necessarily because you think they are going to pass at parliament. It is so you show the strength of pro-life feeling in the country and in parliament, which we were able to do, and secondly to reopen the debate, which we were able to do, and change some minds.
I certainly know that we achieved these objectives because I received many letters from people telling me that they changed their minds as a result of hearing the argument. I think this experience is one which should give encouragement to anybody else thinking about bringing forward a private members bill in the future. I think the political climate at the moment is better than it was during the last government. There are many good pro-life MPs in the House of Commons and I hope that after the next general election there might be more. I certainly think it’s about time that there be another major bill.
Robert: So you think there was something to the positive that emerged from the attempts to which we see abortion in the 1980’s and is that why so few politicians are willing to take a stand for life, for the intimidation, harassment, career, repression they might experience?
David: I don’t want to over-exaggerate it, but you have to know what you’re doing if you are going to take on a pro-life bill. If you’re just trying to generate publicity it’s really not a good enough reason to do a private members pull on the abortion issue. If you really believe in the sanctity of human life, from conception then you don’t have any choice if you get an opportunity to do a bill of that kind. That’s how I felt.
I’d been in the House nearly 10 years. I knew I had the experience to take on a controversial and tough question, but I also knew that this was an issue that had been close to my heart since I was a boy at school. I felt it was time that someone, not from the right of politics, but who had a coherent view about social justice and human rights t should demonstrate that you did not need to be right of Genghis Khan in order to care about the unborn child.
I felt that responsibility fell to me at that moment and it now falls to others. No doubt I could have brought in alternative private members bill that would have been very popular and would have endeared me to the politically correct in the commentariat.
But that didn’t seem to me to be the overriding priority or the right thing to do.
As it happened, after my bill was over, even though it led to ostracism within my party, I felt it important to defend my seat at the next general election and to show that you could do a private members bill and survive to tell the story. My majority actually went up at the following general election. The effect within my party though was rather different because they decided then to make the issue a matter of party policy and that led to them and I going our separate ways.
In terms of the physical or verbal abuse, you can get that on a lot of issues. My constituency offices were burned out. We had pickets outside the house. The public meetings were constantly invaded by demonstrators and, on one occasion, I even had my surgery broken up by demonstrators. This was when people were coming to see me to discuss their private problems and personal issues with which they were faced. I found all of that rather bewildering because it demonstrated to me that some of those who were opposing what I was trying to do, couldn’t even contemplate the idea of free speech.
That says something about the intolerance with which we are faced and which from wherever it comes is wholly objectionable. So I learned a lot during the course of a bill. If I was in the same situation again I guess with the really big leading question be would you do the same again? The answer is unequivocally a yes.
Robert: If somebody were to say what relevance will someone like William Wilberforce have to the pro-life movement, how would you bring in comparables there, and what sort of contemporary relevance and importance would he have and what lessons would he have for the pro-life movement today?
David: Well the first thing is not to attach too much importance to one man. If you’ve ever seen the movie Amazing Grace it’s captioned “one man who abolished slavery” or words to that effect. Although it’s a brilliant movie, that isn’t true. It wasn’t one man. It was the Quaker women who first formed the anti-slavery association in London. It was the Quaker women who then invited a young man, Thomas Clarkson, who dropped out of his divinity studies at Cambridge University, to come to their meeting house. Thomas Clarkson became the organizer of the anti-slavery movement and he spent the next 60 years organizing meetings up and down the length of this country. It was he who approached a young new MP, the youngest member of the House – who was not a Christian when he was elected a member of Parliament – William Wilberforce. Clarkson invited Wilberforce to join the anti-slavery movement. He also drew in a very distinguished lawyer, Granville Sharpe, who had challenged the slavery laws in the British courts and had been successful in getting Mr. Justice Mansfield to rule that at least within this jurisdiction of in these islands, it wasn’t permissible for someone to own another man as a slave.
So the point I’m making is that gradually a coalition was formed, an alliance of like-minded people and then they drew in people like Josiah Wedgewood, who manufactured a million badges or pieces of pottery that had on them the motifs of a chained slave with the logo “Am I Not a Man and a Brother.” Hair braids were made for the ladies with the same legend on them. They drew in academics. They drew in poets like William Roscoe, people who could pull a punch. This became the first human rights campaign in history.
A million signatures were collected, petitions were submitted to parliament, public meetings were held up and down the land,boycotts were organized against the imported sugar from the plantations which were being used to enslave black Africans in the Caribbean or in Brazil, and on the plantations in the United States. Public conscience and sensibilities were aroused against the slave trade. As a consequence, attitudes and hearts began to change in the nation as awareness and that in turn challenged Parliamentarians.
Now one thing that Thomas Clarkson did was to bring evidence, first to the meetings. He brought with him manacles and chains, the sorts of things were used on the boats to chain people as they were being transported on the middle passage from Africa to America. People were horrified when they saw these things and knowing that it was being done in their name. He brought witnesses to those meetings, a young African called Olaudah Equiano for instance who spoke movingly about his own escape from slavery and risked his life speaking in public meetings in places like Liverpool and Bristol which were mired in the slave trade.
To parliament they brought people who had been convinced to change their minds, most notably John Newton who had been a slave trader, and who described what conditions were like on the ships and how they turned disabled and sick people over the sides of the ship because they would no longer be worth any money once they arrived at their destination. This truly shocked people and gradually Wilberforce began one by one by one introducing bills, challenging the laws. Ironically it wasn’t an anti-slavery measure that finally went through parliament and which ended the trade. What might we learn from this?
When abolitionists within the pro-life movement start telling parliamentarians their business, they are out of order because they often have no idea of how parliament works or what is achievable or what is possible. Their job is to change the attitudes, hearts, and mind of people in the country. They’re not doing that job in many cases. Until they do, they then can’t complain when it is a seeming impossibility of changing laws here. If they want to learn anything from the anti-slavery movement, it’s that those two things have to go on in parallel and that finally you have to trust the leadership of the parliamentarians to know when the moment is right and how best to go about it.
What Wilberforce did in the last analysis was not a bill to end the slave trade. It was a financial measure. It was an amendment to the finance bill that amended the laws to make it completely worthless to people to carry on trading in slaves. It would result in them being subject to such heavy taxation that it would actually cost them money to carry on the trade rather than generate profit. We might consider applying the same principle to the abortion business. Desirable though it would be, if it were possible,, to end all abortion tomorrow. There are other things that perhaps you have to do in order to get to the same destination.
Robert: Why do you think there is so much apathy and indifference especially in the Churches on the issue of abortion, and what do you think is the solution or response to that issue? Why do stories about abortion stay suppressed?
David: I think there is a combination of reasons why the churches have been reluctant to become more involved in pro-life work. One is that many of the casualties of abortion will be people who attend churches. There are nearly 7 million abortions that have taken place in Britain. In addition to the women who have had those abortions, will be men who have pushed them into it. There will be the doctors, the nurses, and all the people who have been involved. Many of them are very reluctant to see this issue raised and some of them are members of churches. Church leaders themselves are wary of speaking on this issue because they know that within their congregations there will be people who have been damaged by abortion.
Men, in particular, have become cowardly about this issue because they’ve been told by others it’s none of their business. That it’s purely a women’s issue is palpably untrue because it takes a man to get a women pregnant. There are as many unborn babies that are male than female so this is an issue that affects male and female alike. It’s not just a women’s issue but many men have become cowards of that and have become very reluctant to speak on these things.
I think that the discourse on abortion has been shaken by people who are often very prejudice and bigoted. Their lack of charity in the things they say makes others very reluctant to identify with those arguments. I’ve seen evidence of that again and again. Also it is a grave error for pro-life groups to identify issues of the sanctity of human life of an unborn child with other questions, such as gay rights. This pigeon holes the pro-life movement in a way that makes it very inaccessible to the vast majority of the population who don’t necessarily hold any of those other views.
Robert: Yes. So what more do you think that pro-lifers can do to help build a culture of life? Who are some of the most inspiring people that you’ve seen in this field? And where do you see hope in the pro-life stand and pro-life work, some heroes? Where is the sense of hope, and what can people in the grassroots be doing specifically?
David: Well first Phyllis Bowman still remains, for me, one of the great heroines of the last 40 years. She was in favor of abortion. She changed her mind . We need people like her, people like Norma McCorvey, otherwise known as Jane Roe, people like Bernard Nathanson, who changed their minds, and people like Dr.Alveda King who changed her mind. None of the people I mentioned were or are perfect in any sense of that word, and I find it therefore much easier to identify with than some of the self-proclaimed champions of the pro-life cause.
I enormously admire Jack Scarisbrick and his wife Nuala for creating a network of pro-life houses, education initiatives, and hospices for dying babies. I admired people like Chen Guangcheng who was willing to go to prison in order to highlight the forced abortions in the 130 thousand women in the Shandong province. I think these are the people who have personified the best of the pro-life spirit.
At the moment, I must say I am very taken by some of the young people, people like Eve Farren and Ed Smith who forced the pro-life student alliance who seem to be drawing in a new wave of young people, intelligent, articulate, without a lot of prejudice or baggage. I think they are a very good advertisement to the pro-life movement and I really hope they do well.
Robert: If you could project for the next 40 years are you a pessimist or an optimist? For the black civil rights movement, it was a story of someone sitting on the bus that brought great changes. If changes were to happen how would they happen?
David: I think it is said that a pessimist is an optimist with a sense of history. I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I’m a realist. When I came up in the private members ballot, Professor Scarisbrick came to see me and urged me to do a bill to reduce the time limit, but he said to me, “David if you do this it will be a hard row to hoe.” I think being utterly realistic about the future, people have got to understand this is going to be a tough and never ending battle. This is not an issue for faint hearts. There is nothing easy about pro-life. I see a lot of casualties on the wayside over these years and no doubt there will be others before it’s done.
The Jewish rabbi who said the man or woman who saves a single life, saves the world was right. Maybe that’s all that people can hope to do, but that in itself is a high enough aspiration. We’ve got to continue challenging hearts, challenging minds, challenging attitudes and through that challenging legislatures and the laws themselves. We need many more resources to do that effectively. We operate on a shoestring. There is not a single full-time employee at the present time work in parliament on these issues, not one. I look at the battery of people on the other side employed, for instance, to try now to legalize assisted dying and euthanasia and keep entrenched the reproductive rights agenda. Being realistic, we need more resources and we need many more people to commit themselves in the way that Thomas Clarkson did, to 60 long years of hard organization.
It may take longer than that, but in every generation there are always new battles to fight and new demons to face. This, though, is the supreme human rights question. There cannot be anything more important than the deliberate ending of a life of an innocent child in the womb. It should be the safest place in the world and yet in Britain it’s the most dangerous place for a child to be. I think we need to just persist and persist and persist. That should be our watch word and better do it with some humility with prayerfulness and with a sense that all things gather for good. In the end this is a battle that is in God’s hands. We’ve simply got to do what we can. Mother Theresa who perhaps remains for me the great icon of pro-life issues, once said to me, “You’re not called upon to be successful, you’re called upon to be faithful.” I think maybe that should be our watch word of the pro-life movement.
I suppose if you want one other hero for people to look to, look to the man who helped to redeem all the hatred of the Third Reich of the Holocaust the horrors that lead to 6 million people being killed in the concentration camps: Maximillian Kolbe. He stepped forward and gave his life for his beliefs and literally took the place of another man who was facing execution. You could certainly argue that act of sacrifice redeemed all of the people who failed to take a stand, who collaborated, or who were quiet, or just drifted along as so many of us do in our own times. We can take inspiration from people like him.
Robert: And for the last questions, do you think there is development on the issue of informed consent? Is that an issue that could have more prominence?
David: It’s gone very quiet on that issue at the moment, so I don’t feel a great deal of political traction. On the other hand there is a lot of traction on the issue of gender abortion. This is a good place for us to start because as the slogan that underpinned the whole of the abortion rights is in “my right to choose.” I always say to people analyze the words in that slogan, one at a time. It puts me or my or I at the heart of the equation. It emphasizes rights, not duties or responsibilities or obligations, to the weakest amongst us. It insists on choice rather than looking at consequences. Choice is always made at other people’s expense. It’s an ugly slogan that needs to be deconstructed on every possible occasion.
It’s a very good thing to ask people who say they believe in the right to choose, whether they think it is legitimate to take the life of a little girl merely because she is a little girl, on the grounds of gender. Some people in the pro-abortion movement say yes they do support that and at least they are being logical, many do not. If they don’t think it is right, then they don’t really believe in a right to choose and that’s a good thing. Let’s encourage them not to believe in a right to choose, and to admit that they really don’t believe in a right to choose.
The moment you say, not in the case of gender, then you have to ask the question, if it were possible to determine someone’s orientation would it be legitimate? No. Would it be legitimate on the grounds of race? No. Why is it legitimate on the grounds that someone has Down’s Syndrome? Ninety percent of the babies with Down’s Syndrome are now routinely aborted in this country. People feel, is it legitimate to do that up to and even during birth, should that just be a matter of choice? If it’s not legitimate for all those reasons, why is it legitimate on the 98% of the cases of abortions are done under the social clause?
One at a time the arguments need to be deconstructed and I think the reason why I speak a lot about the gender issue is not because I think the vast number of abortions take place on the grounds of gender, it is because it helps to deconstruct the slogan that itself has become the liet motif against which the abortion argument has been waged. We need to be intelligent about this whereas I think sometimes we aren’t intelligent. We now have our own slogans and sound bites but people are on tramlines and it goes nowhere. It’s not the way.
Robert: Thank you so much for your time. I really, really appreciate it and thanks so much for being available to interview today.