Dorothy Cummings McLean

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‘So inspiring’: Scottish conference promotes the culture of life

Dorothy Cummings McLean Dorothy Cummings McLean Follow Dorothy
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GLASGOW, Scotland, October 10, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — Glamorous Glasgow was wet with rain, but the historic center was crowded with cheerful pedestrians. Memory guided me to St. Vincent Street, where I found the shiny black building in which Scotland’s Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC Scotland) was holding its annual conference.

Having been on pilgrimage in Edinburgh that morning, I was late. I missed both the first talk, “Dictatorship of Relativism” by Irish journalist David Quinn, and morning tea. The crowd of participants — about 180 people — had moved from the snazzy post-modern antechamber back into the wide lecture room. I hastily gave my name to the two pre-teen girls manning the registration desk, and Timothy Keohane of the Tradition Family Property Association (TFP) found me the right door.

“The speaker is their mother,” he had said, nodding at the girls.

A slender woman with black mid-heeled ankle boots was at the front of the inner chamber, describing the psychological and physiological state of women in crisis pregnancies. This was Claire Bremner of Scotland’s Abortion Recovery Care and Helpline (ARCH). ARCH is a call-in counseling service run by volunteers since 1998. From 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. every evening, one of a rota of trained volunteers, called Befrienders, sign into the phone system from home and wait for the inevitable calls. There were several Befrienders in the audience.

Abortion recovery helpline

Bremner argued that so many women in crisis choose abortion because, in their panic, they can’t see any other way out of their “dark tunnel.” Pregnancy hormones combined with the adrenaline triggered by fear rob many women of their critical faculties. Their worries are exacerbated by negative messages from people around them, including the devastating “You’d be selfish to have this baby.”

“The (false) light at the end of this tunnel is, ‘You can have an abortion,’” said Bremner.

Once the woman has an abortion, the threat is over, so her crisis feelings subside and she often feels relief. She can then realize “the obvious,” Bremner continued. “It all comes crashing down.” Many post-abortive women experience grief, guilt, anger, self-loathing, suicidal impulses, fear of punishment, fear that they will never be forgiven and, oddly enough, a passionate desire to get pregnant again.

“I’ve never heard of any abortion provider pointing out that reality,” Bremner said.

She ended her speech with the story of Ellie, a Glasgow woman who wanted her baby but a combination of pressures led her to aborting the child after 16 weeks instead. Midway through describing Ellie’s ordeal at the hands of the National Health Service, Bremner broke down and had a sip of water while struggling to compose herself.

“They didn’t ask her how she was getting home,” said the counselor. “In the 21st century, is this good healthcare for any woman?”

During the lunch break, which featured such Scottish delicacies as fried “haggis bon-bons,” I chatted with two young SPUC staffers and then John Mason, a pro-life Member of Scottish Parliament. Mason, a member of the Scottish National Party, is the MSP for Glasgow Shettleston, one of the poorest areas in Scotland.

Pro-life member of Scottish Parliament

Mason vehemently disagrees with British politicians, including from his own party, who want to decriminalize abortion. “I want to get the time limit reduced,” he told me. Currently in the UK unborn babies can be aborted up to 24th week if they are deemed a threat to their mothers’ health.

The MSP says the pro-life movement in Scotland is waiting to see what develops in the pro-abortion drive to decriminalize before it moves forward. If pro-lifers act prematurely, “there could be a reaction and that would make things worse.”

Mason believes that Scotland is a more conservative country than England, which is why some pro-abortion activists did not want the issue of abortion devolved from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament. He doesn’t think the secular humanism of most of Scotland’s MSPs reflects “the true range of public opinion in Scotland.” Nevertheless, Mason, a member of the Baptist community, says there are a “core” of Scottish MSPs that he can depend on to support him in his work for pro-life, pro-family causes.

This was Mason’s first SPUC conference, and he said he’d like to see more MSPs there. He suggested that other MSPs fear they’d be criticized if it became widely known that they opposed abortion. Mason said he’s “used to the flak,” and that being known as pro-life hasn’t done him any harm.

“People like the fact that (some politicians) have values,” he said. “They know where you stand.”

Asked what help a pregnant teenager could expect from his constituency, Mason pointed to the welfare state’s wide-ranging benefit system and also a provision of nursery care for the children of the most vulnerable citizens. He said his party is opposed to changes that will bundle child credit payments — which currently go straight to mothers — with disability support and other benefits into one family welfare payment.

SPUC Scotland’s initiatives

After lunch a bespectacled man in a grey suit — SPUC chief executive John Deighan — talked to the crowd about building a culture of life in the face of 57 million annual abortions worldwide. Pro-lifers getting to know each other and working together is “key,” he said.

SPUC Scotland initiatives include education in Catholic schools and parishes, “White Flower appeals,” parliamentary engagement, media monitoring, resisting the decriminalization of abortion with a “Scottish Grassroots Tour,” the youth-run Project Truth, the ARCH service and its own “charity shop,” i.e. used good store. Charity shops are a fundraising staple in the UK.  

Deighan encouraged the crowd to take a break before the keynote address to talk to SPUC staff, and also asked them to join the UK’s political parties, so as to bring a pro-life presence to mainstream politics.

‘Abortion: from controversy to civility’

Speaking at the SPUC conference was a homecoming for Canadian Stephanie Gray, whose father is from Barrhead, 13 miles southwest of Glasgow. Wearing a black shift dress and candy red killer heels, tall, whippet-thin Gray modeled competence and professionalism as she taught a master class in debating strategy.

“Good arguments need good arguers,” she said. The goal of the good arguer is “to win the person along with the argument.”

Gray advocates a strategy that is deeply rooted in patience and charity for whomever one is addressing or debating. She stressed the importance of prayer beforehand “so that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit can flow into our encounters.” During the conversations, pro-life advocates should “ask a lot of questions and tell a lot of stories.”

A question is a great starting point for a conversation about abortion, Gray maintained, because it means the person you are speaking to has to stop and think. For example, it is better to ask a person “What do you think about abortion?” rather than “Do you support abortion?”

When an abortion advocate tells the pro-lifer what he or she thinks, the pro-lifer should try to find some common ground so as to “build a bridge.” For example, if your conversation partner asserts that poverty makes pregnancy difficult, you can say “I agree with you that to be pregnant and poor would be difficult.” But then you can make a point with a story (or “parable”) and another question — like “What if a rich woman had a baby and became poor two years later; could she kill her baby?”

Step by step, Gray took her audience through a typical debate with a pro-abortion advocate and showed how the conversation could be shifted from the circumstances around a crisis pregnancy to the humanity — and therefore the human rights — of the unborn child.

Rational argument is not always enough. Sometimes a pro-abortion advocate is arguing from not from the head but from the heart. “If they ask about rape, they’re not asking if the fetus is human,” said Gray. “They’re asking if we (pro-lifers) are human.”

Gray showed a clip of a young woman on a college campus arguing that she was right to have an abortion after she was raped at 13. The audience shivered with embarrassment at a pro-life man’s inability to acknowledge the horror of what had happened to the girl.

When it is clear that someone is not arguing intellectually but emotionally, it is a good idea to go back to asking questions, Gray advised. Such questions might include “Where does your passion come from?” “Do you know someone who has had an abortion?” “How are they doing?” and “What does someone who thinks like you want someone who thinks like me to think about?”

After Gray’s talk and the traditional SPUC raffle, the participants went out to the antechamber for cakes, coffee and chat. The crowd included such familiar faces as Sister Roseann Reddy of the Sisters of the Gospel of Life and David Kerr, the director of communications at the Archdiocese of St. Andrews & Edinburgh. There was also a sprinkling of children and babies.

Margaret Akers, the most recent addition to the SPUC Scotland staff, enthused over Gray’s presentation:

“I thought Stephanie’s speech was so great, so inspiring and so practical,” Akers said. “You could really put (her ideas) into practice.”

Another participant told me that she had been a member of SPUC Scotland since 1972 and had been to several annual conferences. She lowered her voice to tell me that the 2017 conference had “the best speakers I’ve ever heard in one room.”

I left the happily chatting, pastry-munching throng to catch my train back to Edinburgh, very glad to have had the chance to catch up with old friends and to meet so many other wonderful people active in Scotland’s pro-life movement.

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Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian journalist, essayist, and novelist. She earned an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto and an M.Div./S.T.B. from Toronto’s Regis College. She was a columnist for the Toronto Catholic Register for nine years and regularly contributes to Catholic World Report.  Her first book, Seraphic Singles,  was published by Novalis (2010) in Canada, Liguori in the USA, and Homo Dei in Poland. Her second, Ceremony of Innocence, was published by Ignatius Press (2013).  Dorothy lives near Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband. 

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