Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

Tag: heroes and heroines

Pro-Life Heroes and Heroines, No. 10: The Unknown Pro-Lifer

Reading the stories of the other heroes and heroines in this series, one might think that it is all well and good to praise such people but that’s not for everyone: we can’t all be Lila Rose or Mildred Jefferson, and indeed, we don’t all have to be. I agree.

So far, our series has passed over the majority of those who are pro-life heroes and heroines, the bread and butter of the pro-life movement: the unknown pro-lifers. Who are these mystery people? Well, you and me (I hope!). We can each be a pro-life hero or heroine by being pro-life where we are now, whatever that stage of life may be. That may look very different for a gynaecologist or a palliative nurse, for a politician or a teacher, for a student or a parent. But heroes and heroines they can all be. Let me just give you one example of a pro-life heroine that I know. Let’s call her Emma: she’d rather not be named, and that’s typical – she’s someone who, without seeking recognition, quietly reinforces the value of life however she can.

Perhaps the best place to begin with this heroine (to cut to the chase) is the day she took into her family home, without asking for anything, a young international student who had found herself pregnant. Terrified to return to her country where the pressures of family and society would have forced her to have an abortion – something that she decidedly did not want – this young woman found refuge with Emma. Flash forward a year or two and Emma is welcoming another woman into her home: a woman left by her husband just weeks before her due date with no support, her family thousands of miles away. Both women were strangers to her; now friends.

In her professional life as a doctor, Emma works to educate others about life ethics – most recently an evening enlightening other healthcare professionals about the reality of sex-selective abortion and why it must be opposed. In her home life, she has shown the importance of these values to her children so that they know should they, a friend, or anyone they know need support, it can be found at home.

For you, the student reading this, again, you may say ‘I can’t do this: this certainly does not look like it could be something “you and me” could do.’ True. But, without a doubt, there is a way you can help promote a culture that defends and values life. Maybe this will be raising a motion in your JCR or MCR to help student parents. Maybe this will be challenging one of your friends when they claim ‘Euthanasia should just be made legal already’. Maybe it will mean writing your philosophy thesis in defence of life, or perhaps considering joining the OSFL committee next year! Whatever it is, each of us, each unknown pro-lifer, can be a pro-life hero or heroine. We can each make a difference.

(Previously in this series: Alice Paul, Jack Scarisbrick, Gandhi, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Lila Rose, Ovid, Mildred Jefferson, Jerome Lejeune, Concepta Wood and Mary Doogan.)

Pro-Life Heroes and Heroines, No. 9: Concepta Wood and Mary Doogan

(A guest blog from Xavier Bisits, former President of Cambridge Students for Life)

When Concepta Wood and Mary Doogan signed up to their job at an NHS hospital in Glasgow, they expected that their job would match the description:

“The post holder is responsible for providing clinical leadership and operational management for delivery of the midwifery service within labour ward and obstetric theatre.”

No mention of abortion.  They were supporting the midwifery service – a service that is by its very nature life-giving and life-affirming.

Wood and Goodan were outraged when the NHS turned their role into one that made them cooperate with the hospital’s provision of abortion – and decided to take legal action.

Even though the Court of Session in Edinburgh had previously taken their side, last month the Supreme Court ruled against them.

What was the problem? The pair had been employed as labour ward co-ordinators at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow.

The NHS of Greater Glasgow and Clyde gave them notice of new duties that required them to supervise and delegate work to staff assisting in the procurement of abortions.  The argument of the NHS was that their work did not involve the actual work of providing an abortion.

Such an argument, however, as lawyers acting on their behalf explained, makes a mockery of freedom of conscience. The point of freedom of conscience – especially in medical situations – is to spare objectors from cooperating in an act that they believe to be a fundamental violation of the their beliefs.

To the nurses, overseeing a process of abortion is tantamount to direct participation.  History is littered with atrocities that were executed with chilling bureaucratic efficiency; sitting at a desk does not mask involvement.  On the contrary, it is part of the overall process – all of which is necessary. And anyone who believes in the unborn’s right to life could hardly take part in that process with a clear conscience.

Speaking after the decision, they said:

“We are both saddened and extremely disappointed with today’s verdict from the Supreme Court and can only imagine the subsequent detrimental consequences that will result from today’s decision on staff of conscience throughout the UK.

“Despite it having been recognised that the number of abortions on the labour ward at our hospital is in fact a tiny percentage of the workload, which in turn could allow the accommodation of conscientious objection with minimal effort, this judgment, with its constraints and narrow interpretation, has resulted in the provision of a conscience clause which now in practice is meaningless for senior midwives on a labour ward.”

These nurses deserve our support for their efforts.  They put their jobs and professional reputations on the line to secure justice and draw attention to the difficulties that so many medical professionals in the UK face when asked to provide “healthcare” that conflicts with their beliefs.

They may have lost the case but they are a testament to the need to be vigilant about the right to conscientious objection in the UK.

(Previously in this series: Alice Paul, Jack Scarisbrick, Gandhi, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Lila Rose, Ovid, Mildred Jefferson, Jerome Lejeune.)

Pro-Life Heroes and Heroines, No. 8: Jerome Lejeune

A key figure in modern genetic science, Jerome Lejeune is best known for his discovery of the extra chromosome that causes Down syndrome, and best loved for his work in caring for those with the condition.

Born in France in 1926, Lejeune studied medicine in Paris and became a researcher at the National Centre of Scientific Research in 1952. He published a seminal paper in 1959 with two colleagues, Raymond Turpin and Marthe Gautier, which showed that those with Down syndrome have 47 chromosomes, just two years after it had been proved that the standard amount is 46. For the discovery of ‘trisomy 21’ he won the Kennedy Prize in 1962 and was named the first chair of human genetics at the University of Paris in 1964. He went on to identify the cause of cri-du-chat syndrome, among other chromosomal disorders, and was given the William Allan Memorial Award from the American Society of Human Genetics in 1969, the highest distinction that can be granted to a geneticist.

One of the consequences of Lejeune’s discovery was the screening for Down syndrome that became available in the 1970s, which led to routine abortions on prenatal diagnosis. Lejeune was deeply troubled by this: “Hate the disease, love the patient: that is the practice of medicine,” he said. He spent much of his later life working to discover treatments for such conditions.

People say, “The price of genetic diseases is high. If these individuals could be eliminated early on, the savings would be enormous!” It cannot be denied that the price of these diseases is high—in suffering for the individual and in burdens for society. Not to mention what parents suffer! But we can assign a value to that price: It is precisely what a society must pay to remain fully human.

He was pro-life because he believed that every life, no matter how many chromosomes it relies on, is worth living and deserves protection. His pro-life stance was not just that though – it was dynamic; he’s a pro-life hero because his beliefs had consequences for his personal life and professional career. The Nobel committee had considered rewarding the discovery of the origins of Down syndrome, but when Lejeune spoke out against abortion at a conference of delegates to the United Nations, he had to write to his wife later that day: “Today, I lost my Nobel prize in medicine.” His funding for research was cut, he was marginalised by the academic community and his family were even routinely harassed.

He continued to defend the most vulnerable, though, even travelling to the United States in 1989 to be a witness at a court case which would decide whether frozen embryos were properly ‘property’ or not. You can read his statement about the origins of human life here. Alongside his research and this kind of advocacy of the right to life for all, Lejeune dedicated himself to caring for those with Down syndrome. He was the founder of the first specialised clinic for trisomy 21 patients at Necker Children’s Hospital in Paris. He paid personal attention to each of the 9000 children who passed through his wards – his daughter Clara records that at the time of his death he knew the 5000 current patients by name. He also worked to help them find educational and job opportunities, and was a constant support for many families across the world. Thousands of parents came to him, seeking advice and comfort. Clara recounts that people would call him and – day or night – he would spend hours with them.

Jerome Lejeune died of lung cancer in 1994. He was a pro-lifer who was not afraid to put his reputation on the line, an expert doctor and scientist who put his life at the service of those he worked with. We’ve cited the statistics on this blog before, but they’re still shocking. Around 90% of foetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted in Britain every year. We should be asking, in the practical spirit of Lejeune, what more we can do about it. Clara talks about a family lunch in her biography: her father came home and told them about a little boy with Down syndrome who had seen something on television about prenatal testing, and who begged him to save him from “those who want to kill us.” She writes: “He was white and he said, “If I don’t protect them, I am nothing.” The ‘price’ of not resorting to eugenics might be high, but Lejeune saw that it is cost of remaining “fully human”.

(Amy Owens)

Previously in this series: Alice Paul, Jack Scarisbrick, Gandhi, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Lila Rose, Ovid, Mildred Jefferson.

Pro-Life Heroes and Heroines, No.7: Mildred Jefferson

Of all of the pro-life heroes and heroines we’ve featured in this series, perhaps none is more worthy of her place in the pro-life hall of fame than Dr. Mildred Jefferson. Certainly none could be more qualified to speak out on the subject of abortion, as Dr. Jefferson spent her life doing. As a woman, a doctor, and a member of a long-oppressed racial minority in the United States, Jefferson experienced firsthand the struggle to defend the rights of the vulnerable against the will of the strong. And so she devoted her life to the pro-life cause, which she called “the cause of every man, woman and child who cares not only about his or her own family, but the whole family of man”.

Born in Pittsburg, Texas in 1926, Jefferson distinguished herself at an early age. After graduating summa cum laude with her bachelor’s degree from Texas College at the age of 16, and earning her master’s degree from Tufts, Jefferson became the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School in 1951 and went on to be the first female surgical intern at Boston City Hospital and the first female doctor at the Boston University Medical Center. The timeline of her early career is impressive enough, but it was in the early 1970s, when increased cultural and legal trends towards abortion gathered momentum, that Jefferson came to the fore as one of the earliest and most outspoken leaders of the modern pro-life movement.

Many argue that abortion is a moral grey issue, absent a clear-cut right or wrong. Dr. Jefferson knew this was not so. She famously said:

I am at once a physician, a citizen and a woman, and I am not willing to stand aside and allow this concept of expendable human lives to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged and the planned have the right to live.

Jefferson helped found Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Black Americans for Life, and the National Right to Life Committee (of which she served as President for three terms), and ran as a political candidate on a pro-life platform in the 1980s and 90s. She served on the boards of dozens of pro-life organizations and lobbied to support other pro-life political candidates. Up until her death in 2010, Jefferson gave speeches against abortion and in support of other pro-life advocates.

Beyond her commitment to the cause – evident in the bare facts of her life – Jefferson’s strength as a pro-life advocate stemmed from her talents as a leader and orator, and her ability to understand the issue from several different perspectives. As a doctor, Jefferson knew that abortion is killing, and that licensing doctors to kill is a perversion of medical care. She insisted that “my earnest effort is to uphold medicine as a high calling, a sacred profession.” As a black woman raised in the United States before the Civil Rights movement, Jefferson knew all too well that many pro-choice advocates at the time saw abortion as a way to control the poor black population. She witnessed firsthand the efforts of the strong to oppress the weak in the racial battles of the 20th century, and identified abortion as yet another manipulation of power, arguing that “it is unconscionably unfair that the victim selected on which to test the social remedy of expendable lives is the most defenseless member of the human family.” And, in her own words, “as a woman, I am ashamed” – ashamed that abortion was advanced in the name of women’s rights, and that mothers might willingly choose their own interests over the lives of their unborn children.

Jefferson’s influence was compounded by her natural ability as a speaker and debater. She was famously articulate. As Darla St. Martin of the NRLC put it, “She was probably the greatest orator of our movement. In fact, take away the probably.” Jefferson has been credited with changing Ronald Reagan’s stance on abortion; in a letter to her, he wrote “You have made it irrefutably clear that an abortion is the taking of a human life, I am grateful to you.” In her numerous appearances as an ambassador of the NRLC and other pro-life groups, Jefferson high standards for pro-life advocates, demonstrating the grace, precision, and confidence that pro-life advocates today should and do strive to emulate. In her dedication, intellectual sophistication, and compelling composure, Jefferson can serve as a model for all of us who work for the cause of which she was one of the greatest champions.

(Molly Gurdon)

Previously in this series: Alice Paul, Jack Scarisbrick, Gandhi, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Lila Rose, Ovid.

Pro-Life Heroes and Heroines, No. 4: Hans and Sophie Scholl

On this day in 1943, two extraordinary people were executed for treason against the Nazis. Hans Scholl was 24, his sister Sophie 21. They were extraordinary people even regardless of their role in history. Hans, a natural leader, bowled over practically everyone by sheer force of personality; his Gestapo interrogator thought this young traitor was the most intellectually brilliant person he had ever met. Sophie, straight-talking and often profound, could be the life of the party at one moment, and at the next retreat into a deep, almost mystical inner life. Both were scarily intelligent and utterly uncompromising.

It would be possible to argue that the Scholls and the rest of the White Rose movement achieved nothing, that their campaign should be classed with the Charge of the Light Brigade as a splendid but pitiable failure. Weren’t they, you might ask, too reckless from the beginning, daubing the streets of Munich with anti-Hitler slogans? Wasn’t it, as Sophie seems to have admitted herself, a ‘stupid mistake’ to distribute their leaflets so openly, scattering them in the University hall and so getting caught? And weren’t those leaflets, sent all over southern Germany, quite strange anyway, with their lengthy quotations from Lao Tzu and Schiller and their apocalyptic rhetoric? Wasn’t it, in fact, just what you would expect from a group of excitable and rather pretentious students?

This much has to be conceded – the members of the White Rose were not really very politically-minded. Willi Graf preferred singing in the Bach Choral Society to being a subversive activist. Kurt Huber spent the last weeks before his execution desperately trying to complete his big book on Leibniz. What really mattered to them was art, literature, philosophy, religion, and those values which were so colossally important the Nazis could not even see them.

But that was their strength: they saw themselves as part of a whole civilization and its principles – at the heart of them, the respect for human life. One of the great turning-points for Hans and Sophie came in 1941, when the Bishop of Münster, the fearless Count Clemens von Galen, used a sermon to denounce the Nazis’ euthanasia programme. Hitler had explained that this was a kind, humane project: only the most wretched individuals, carefully selected by an expert panel of doctors, would be ‘granted release by euthanasia’. Later, the Ministry of Propaganda sponsored a popular TV drama, in which a beautiful young woman with multiple sclerosis pleads to be allowed an assisted suicide. Like the Scholls, von Galen saw what was really at stake. Some slopes, the bishop told his listeners, really are slippery:

Once it becomes permissible…to put to death ‘unproductive’ human beings, then we are all of us open to being murdered when we, too, are old and feeble and no longer productive… If such things are permitted, then none of us is safe in our lives.

Though von Galen was too popular a figure for the Nazis to touch, they kept his words out of the press. But people duplicated the sermon and mailed it around. And this example of disseminating anti-Nazi material set Hans thinking. He read and reread his copy of the sermon and was heard to muse aloud: ‘One definitely ought to have a duplicating machine of one’s own.’ That duplicating machine, in the end, cost Hans his life.

Von Galen vividly confirmed the Scholls’ sense of ‘the massive Nazi assault on the decencies and traditions of the civilization they knew’, as one excellent biography puts it. Working as an army medic, Hans was constantly among the wounded and suffering; he knew that they should not be classed as useless. So did his fellow White Rose member Christopher Probst, also a medic. Christopher’s sister Angelika recalled his ‘outrage’ over the euthanasia programme: ‘No one, he said, can know what goes on in the soul of a mentally afflicted person. No one can know what secret inner ripening can come from suffering. Every individual’s life is priceless.’

In their Hitler Youth days, before their disillusionment, Hans and Sophie would have sung songs with lines like:

The old must perish,
The weak must decay.

But they grew up into a better philosophy, one which valued every human life, however weak and defenceless. Hans and Sophie, with the rest of the White Rose movement, lived by high ideals. They knew they could not bring down the whole regime. They made a huge impact, even so, and a sceptic who called their efforts a romantic failure would simply be wrong. The Scholls delivered a real blow to Nazi self-confidence, and after their deaths the leaflets were reproduced and distributed in their millions all over Europe. To the people of Germany, to exiles abroad, to prisoners in concentration camps, it was an awakening of hope to hear the news about these young people in Munich. And their example endures. Sophie has nearly 200 German schools named after her.

All that is true; but their achievement cannot be summed up by listing its practical results. It was something more, something hard to express, though the words of Geoffrey Hill (speaking about the Elizabethan martyrs) come close: ‘The very fact that they lived ennobles the human race, which is so often ignoble.’ The Scholls fought against huge odds, not for victory, but because fighting was the only thing worth doing. Hans was motivated less by the hope of effecting change than by a haunting thought about the verdict of future generations: ‘We will be standing empty-handed,’ he warned. ‘We will have no answer when we are asked: What did you do about it?’

Previously featured in this series: Alice Paul, Jack Scarisbrick, Gandhi.


Pro-Life Heroes and Heroines, No. 1: Alice Paul

On November 9, 1909, an American visiting student at the LSE was arrested for disrupting the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. Alice Paul and her friend had snuck in disguised as cleaners, before surprising the guests (including the entire British Cabinet) by throwing their shoes and shouting ‘Votes for Women!’ They were sent to prison, whereupon Paul went on hunger strike. She was held down, choked, and force-fed: her screams were heard all through the prison, and afterwards blood was streaming down her face. It became a news story on both sides of the Atlantic. The New York Times sent a reporter to interview Paul’s mother Tacie. ‘I cannot understand how all this came about,’ she told him. ‘Alice is such a mild-mannered girl.’

In some ways, Tacie Paul was right. Paul was mild-mannered by nature, but she was set on fire by a cause she knew to be just. She had a paralyzing fear of public speaking; but when she returned to America, she became one of the chief orators for women’s suffrage, and eventually the leader of the movement. She was incapable of small talk; but it is hard to imagine a shrewder negotiator or a more effective lobbyist. She decided, after a dispiriting day of handing out suffragist literature to contemptuous Londoners, that she wasn’t ‘very brave by nature’; but it was her courage, as much as anything else, which brought about the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1920, and guaranteeing women the same voting rights as men. Hard to believe this was less than a century ago: it is remarkable how quickly a proposal can change from being considered eccentric and dangerous to being universally accepted.

That, however, is not Alice Paul’s only significance for the pro-life movement. There is something else – a remark of hers which, though brief, tells an important story. ‘Abortion,’ she said, on almost the only recorded occasion when she talked about it, ‘is just another way of exploiting women.’

So powerful is this little statement that some ‘pro-choicers’ have tried to deny that Paul ever said it. But she did. Not only is the documentary evidence there, but it also sounds exactly like her. It has all her terse, unblinking honesty. Paul was not one to compromise – not with opponents, not with allies, not with herself. She thought that her love of detective stories might distract her from the campaign; well then, detective stories had to go. She carefully avoided bookshops, and kept her room freezing cold so that she would not be tempted to stay up reading. That was her way – when her mind was made up, she did not give an inch. She spoke like that, too. ‘Abortion is just another way of exploiting women.’

This baffles people because Paul was a women’s rights activist, wasn’t she? And pro-lifers only care about unborn babies, don’t they? But Paul, one of the clearest-sighted people of her age, knew better. She realised that when women are desperate enough to seek abortion, it is often as a result of (male) exploitation and irresponsibility. And that when society offers in response neither practical help, nor encouragement, nor the chance to develop a mother’s relationship with the soon-to-be-born child, nor the possibility of adoption, but instead offers a traumatising act of violence which takes away life – that sounds rather more like exploitation than liberation.

One fellow-suffragist recalled what it was like to meet Alice Paul: ‘When you ask her a question, there ensues, on her part, a moment of stillness so profound you can almost hear it. I think I have never seen anybody who can keep so still as Alice Paul.’ Out of that stillness she is still speaking, telling us that a protest against abortion is always a declaration of the rights of women.