UK pro-life leader warns Canadian pro-life movement to avoid this strategic blunder in fight to end abortion
July 22, 2021 (Campaign Life Coalition) – One of the world’s most respected pro-life leaders is warning the Canadian pro-life movement not to make the same strategic blunder he and other pro-lifers made almost 40 years ago in the battle against abortion in the UK.
John Smeaton, director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), the oldest pro-life campaigning and educational organization in the world, told Campaign Life Coalition in an exclusive interview how in the 1980s, the UK pro-life movement — which included SPUC — campaigned for the reduction of the upper time limit for abortion from 28 to 18 weeks. This, unfortunately, resulted in tragic consequences for the movement’s efforts to protect preborn babies.
Smeaton, who is also vice-president of the International Right to Life Federation, outlined (read full interview below) how many pro-lifers at the time had hoped that a gestational law would help to reduce the total number of abortions. Instead, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which did become law, had so many exceptions that, according to Smeaton, it, in essence, increased “the time limit for abortion in almost every case and in many cases right up to birth.”
“It was pro-lifers who pressed for the 1990 Act to contain provisions relating to abortion, in the hope of being able to insert some restrictions, particularly early time limits,” said Smeaton.
He explained how well-intentioned pro-lifers found themselves caught in a trap.
“MPs knew that they couldn’t get ‘time-limit’ amendments through without making exceptions to allow some babies to be aborted past the ‘limit,’ he said. “The result was a 24-week ‘limit’ (not the 18 weeks we had campaigned for) but for disabled babies, and other cases, all limits were removed – abortion up to birth. This was a bitter, tragic result, and it arose from two clear mistakes, a mistake of tactics and a mistake of principle,” Smeaton said.
“There were not enough MPs on the pro-life side and so a tactical decision was made to trade the right to life of some unborn babies (disabled babies in particular) for votes. This betrayed the principle that all babies have the right to life. MPs were asked to vote for a measure that denied protection to some babies while trying to save others. This flies in the face of the general principle that one mustn’t do evil hoping that good may come of it – because it won’t,” he continued.
“SPUC was among the groups which, three years earlier, backed an upper limit Bill despite our reservations, which we now bitterly regret. It was a bitter lesson but one which I think Canadians could learn from,” Smeaton added.
Unlike many countries worldwide, such as Germany, Spain, or France, Canada has no law protecting the lives of preborn children. There is also no “right” to abortion in Canada either. It was the Liberal Government under Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1969 that covertly legalized abortion as part of a larger “omnibus bill.” The bill allowed abortion according to specific criteria, including that the pregnant mother first obtains the consent of a three-member ‘therapeutic abortion committee’ set up in hospitals. In 1988, the Supreme Court in the Morgentaler decision struck down Trudeau’s law as unconstitutional, ruling that it violated a woman’s Charter right to security of the person since many women did not have access to a ‘therapeutic abortion committee’ to rubber-stamp a request for an abortion. The court at that time encouraged Parliament to draft a replacement abortion law, stating directly that the “abortion question” belongs to Parliament to “pronounce on and to direct social policy.” Despite various efforts to bring about such a law, however, to date, Parliament has failed to pass any such abortion-related legislation. What this means is that there is a legal vacuum surrounding abortion. Because of this, abortion is permitted throughout all nine months of pregnancy, for any reason, up to the moment of birth. Abortions are now funded with taxpayer dollars through every provincial health care system. An estimated 100,000 preborn babies are now surgically aborted every year in Canada. This number does not include the growing number of babies who are exterminated by means of chemical abortion pills.
Campaign Life Coalition (CLC) explained in 2012 why the Canadian pro-life movement must take no part in creating a law that would attempt to restrict abortion based on the age of the preborn baby. Such a law would necessarily be flawed and unjust since it would allow children to be targeted for abortion who failed to meet the age requirement.
“It is counterproductive and wrong to promote or accept abortion legislation that arbitrarily divides humans into protected and unprotected classes,” CLC wrote at that time. “Therefore, measures that create exceptions to abortion (rape, incest, health of the mother, genetic defects, and gestational) should be avoided. We know how many of these supposedly defined exceptions have been interpreted in the widest possible manner in the past to rubber stamp practically every request for abortion.”
“Currently, there is no Canadian law prohibiting abortion and therefore it is legally tolerated without being officially sanctioned by the law. If new abortion legislation said that abortion is permitted under certain circumstances and prohibited under others, then that legislation would be codifying in law permission to abort, that currently does not exist. The pro-life movement cannot propose or accept such legislation.”
While CLC is often attacked for being ‘all or nothing’ in its strategy to end abortion, this criticism is not accurate. CLC supports incremental measures that do not compromise the principle of the equal value of every life, born or unborn. Examples of such supportable measures include a law to make it a separate offense to injure or kill an unborn child during a criminal assault on a pregnant woman, or a law to ban abortion when it is sought solely on the grounds of the child’s genetic sex, or a law that would defund abortion, or a law that would offer conscience protection to health care professionals who do not want to take part in abortion or euthanasia. Such measures would not leave behind any child at some arbitrary developmental stage. If such measures were to become law, they would incrementally work to end the killing while respecting all life.
As pro-lifers, we must work hard to bring abortion back into the political debate. At the same time, we must not be willing to compromise the lives of some babies to get some protection for others. It’s important to keep in mind that God did not tell Moses, “thou shalt not kill after 20 weeks.” He said, “Thou shalt not kill.” When it comes to the Canadian situation, where abortion is in a legal vacuum, this means that pro-lifers should champion laws that leave no baby behind.
Preborn Canadian children need a just law that protects all of them during pregnancy, not just any law that will cover only some of them.
Smeaton told CLC that a principled approach based on recognizing that “abortion is an act of lethal violence directed at an unborn child” will ultimately be the winning strategy for ending the slaughter of preborn babies.
“Abortion will only end when enough people recognise that unborn children are fully human with the same innate rights as all other members of the human family,” he said.
“Pro-life groups should press for this to be acknowledged in law,” he added.
John Smeaton’s full interview with Campaign Life Coalition
Campaign Life Coalition (CLC): What would you say to Canadian pro-life groups who are advocating for a law that would ban abortion say at 20 weeks?
John Smeaton: Any serious discussion of this issue must begin with the recognition that abortion is an act of lethal violence directed at an unborn child. This is true regardless of the stage of the child’s development, disabilities or the circumstances of conception. Naturally, abortion advocates reject this. Unfortunately, some sections of the pro-life movement effectively reject it when they campaign in support of legislation that permits abortion in various circumstances. They argue that their aim is to mitigate a bad law. Catholic pro-life leaders and Catholic bishops, in particular, have justified this approach by quoting from section 73 of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on the inviolability of human life Evangelium Vitae, where His Holiness says:
“A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorised abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on … In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not, in fact, represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.”
Perhaps the majority of pro-life groups and church leaders have interpreted this paragraph as meaning that the pro-life movement can support laws that expressly permit abortions. But this is contrary to reason.
In the immediately preceding section of Evangelium Vitae, number 72, Pope John Paul II reminded the faithful that a law which permits the killing of certain unborn children is not a law at all. It’s an unjust law which, in the words of St Thomas Aquinas “ceases to be a law and becomes instead an act of violence”. Pope John Paul II, in this connection, cites the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and its 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion which states: “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it”. [My emphasis]
“Never” means never!
According to Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, “the principle (or law) of non-contradiction is the firmest.” Aristotle says that “without the principle of non-contradiction we could not know anything that we do know” . On the basis of the principle of non-contradiction, therefore, it’s not possible for this statement to mean both that one can vote for an unjust law and, at the same time, that one cannot vote for an unjust law – on the basis of one’s motives in doing so or for any other reason.
The pro-life movement mustn’t get drawn into helping to regulate the killing of unborn children. There is a crucial moral difference between, on the one hand, limiting, in an ethical way, the harm of pro-abortion legislation, and, on the other hand, advising legislators on how and when abortion can be legalised. The former is permissible whereas the latter is not.
Adopting a utilitarian or gradualist approach to intrinsically evil acts is never ethically justified. Even if it is our intention to save as many lives as possible we can never be complicit in the sacrifice of even one innocent life. This approach is known as the Caiaphas Principle, named after the Jewish high priest who condemned Jesus to death (Matthew 26: 57-66) and advocated the sacrifice of one innocent life to save many lives (John 11: 49 – 52).
CLC: Were there any mistakes made by UK pro-lifers on this matter that Canadians could learn a hard lesson about?
Smeaton: In the 1980s, the pro-life movement in Britain, including SPUC, campaigned for the reduction of the upper time limit for abortion from 28 to 18 weeks. Even today, people mistakenly think that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 reduced the time limit from 28 to 24 weeks.
In fact, before 1990 there was no 28-week upper time limit as such - the limit was not a definitive time but the moment in each case when the child reached the stage of being “capable of being born alive” (Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929). The 28-week limit was simply a prima facie presumption of being “capable of being born alive”, not a legal time limit. As is widely known, many children have been born before 28 weeks – even before 24 weeks – and survived.
Because of amendments to the law made by the 1990 Act, the limit contained in the 1929 Act was abolished and a 24-week time limit was introduced but only for certain cases. In other cases, (including foetal disability) abortions can be carried out right up to the time of birth.
So the effect of the 1990 Act was to increase the time limit for abortion in almost every case and in many cases right up to birth.
It was pro-lifers who pressed for the 1990 Act to contain provisions relating to abortion, in the hope of being able to insert some restrictions, particularly early time limits.
MPs knew that they couldn’t get “time-limit” amendments through without making exceptions to allow some babies to be aborted past the “limit”. The result was a 24-week “limit” (not the 18 weeks we had campaigned for) but for disabled babies, and other cases, all limits were removed – abortion up to birth. This was a bitter, tragic result, and it arose from two clear mistakes, a mistake of tactics and a mistake of principle.
There were not enough MPs on the pro-life side and so a tactical decision was made to trade the right to life of some unborn babies (disabled babies in particular) for votes. This betrayed the principle that all babies have the right to life. MPs were asked to vote for a measure that denied protection to some babies while trying to save others. This flies in the face of the general principle that one mustn’t do evil hoping that good may come of it – because it won’t.
SPUC was among the groups which, three years earlier, backed an upper limit Bill despite our reservations, which we now bitterly regret. It was a bitter lesson but one which I think Canadians could learn from.
CLC: What approach should Canadian pro-life groups rally behind in the effort to end the slaughter of preborn children?
Smeaton: Abortion will only end when enough people recognise that unborn children are fully human with the same innate rights as all other members of the human family. Pro-life groups should press for this to be acknowledged in law.
Canada is a signatory to several international agreements that recognise the personhood of the child in the womb. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  recognises that: “…the child by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including legal protection, before as well as after birth.” 
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) also acknowledges that unborn children possess human rights. A clause in the original draft of Article 1 of the CRC which would have limited rights to the period after birth was deleted specifically to allow the Convention to be applied to children in the womb.  The right to life (Article 6) and the right to healthcare (Article 24.2(d)), therefore, apply to children before birth.
Although the CRC has not been formally incorporated into Canada’s domestic legislation, it nonetheless has effects in Canadian law. As the Supreme Court has indicated, even though the CRC is not a part of domestic law and has no binding effect, it can still be cited for interpretive purposes.
Rather than pursue political initiatives that will merely entrench abortion in Canadian culture by making it seem more acceptable, pro-life groups should focus on building support for its complete rejection. However, there is no way the pro-life movement can bring about the paradigm shift needed to defeat abortion without the Church. Leaders of the movement should, therefore, call on church authorities to fulfil their responsibilities in the defence of children both born and unborn. This includes bringing an end to the corruption of children through anti-life and anti-family sex education.
The right of parents as the primary educators of their children in the intimate area of human sexuality is essential to the ultimate success of the pro-life movement. Powerful governments and the international birth control lobby, funded by our taxes, are effectively establishing the acceptance of contraception and abortion in the darkened hearts and consciences of future generations of adults. Over the years, this development has radically changed the nature and magnitude of the pro-life battle. Sadly, it has happened largely with the support of Catholic leaders. Changing this situation should be seen as a higher priority for the pro-life movement than the promotion of unethical legislation which betrays and sacrifices the most vulnerable children without advancing the prospect of ending abortion for good.