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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.