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Malcolm Mann: Towards a culture of life - Wilberforce and the pro-life movement

Inspired by the new biography of Wilberforce by William Hague, Malcolm Mann, Catholic writer of the Cally's Kitchen blog, looks at the parallels between Wilberforce's mission and the modern pro-life movement.

2007 marks the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade within the British Empire. The campaign to end it was fought on many fronts, but most critically, in the House of Commons. William Hague’s new biography of William Wilberforce, who led the parliamentary campaign, is therefore a timely reminder of what this remarkable man did for his country, and indeed, for the good of Mankind. Wilberforce died in 1833 but his spirit remains alive today in the pro-life movement. I would like here to outline some of the parallels between Wilberforce and his heirs.

William Wilberforce regarded his mission to end the slave trade as God given. He understood that in the eyes of God all Men were Men. The pro-life movement follows and indeed builds upon this belief, taking as it does the definition of what constitutes a human being right to the moment of conception.

When in Parliament, Wilberforce did not rely on his religious faith to persuade his fellow MPs of the rightness of his cause. He gave long and eloquent speeches in the House of Commons in which he rebutted the various arguments of the pro-slave lobby. Today, the pro-life movement likewise provides an intellectual justification of its cause, most immediately, through the work of agencies such the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child and the Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics but also, more broadly speaking, in the social teaching of the Catholic Church. Moreover, just as Wilberforce and other abolitionists provided practical help to former slaves (e.g. poor relief and the resettlement of Freetown in Sierra Leone) so does the pro-life movement, for example, in the late Cardinal Winning’s Pro-Life Initiative in Glasgow.

The French Revolution (1789 – 99) was a disaster for Abolitionism, with the anti-slavery cause becoming identified with the social revolutionaries across the English Channel. To support abolitionism was treachery, something which Wilberforce was all but accused of by no less a figure than the Prince of Wales. Today, the pro-life movement does not face a similar charge, but a more evil one of consigning millions of people to misery and death through their beliefs. The late Pope John Paul II was accused of this with reference to Africa in respect of the Church’s opposition to the use of condoms.

In the end, the French Revolution, and the war with Britain that followed it, only delayed the abolition of the slave trade. Will current hostility to the pro-life position in Africa and elsewhere prove to be similarly temporary? We cannot say, but it is interesting that the causes for which Wilberforce and John Paul II fought involved having a particular view of people that at first was and is not shared by the ruling class. Yet, over time, in Wilberforce’s case, it listened to his argument: listened and then responded positively. If this happened once, who can say that it will not happen again?

Of course, Wilberforce’s mission was not just his own. Indeed, he was but one member of a much wider movement. Amongst other abolitionists was the indefatigable Thomas Clarkson, who travelled up and down the country seeking evidence of the ruinous effect of the slave trade. It was Clarkson who published the famous picture of the Brookes with its slaves lying shoulder to shoulder like sardines in a can. Today, the pro-life movement follows his lead by using images of unborn children to confirm and assert their humanity.

This article has been necessarily brief. Anyone who knows anything about Wilberforce and the pro-life movement will know that much that could have been said about their parallels has been left unsaid here. On 12th May 1787, Wilberforce took a walk with William Pitt the Younger and William Grenville in the grounds of Holwood, Pitt’s home. They stopped underneath an oak tree and it was there that Wilberforce took the decision to join the Abolitionist movement. Two hundred years after the outlawing of the slave trade, a political party has taken the oak tree as its symbol. As a supporter of the pro-life movement, I wonder if the Conservative Party will dare to follow in William Wilberforce’s footsteps and become the party of life.


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