Catholics on Guernsey to hold all night prayer vigil ahead of abortion law debate

The flag of Guernsey. Credit: memodji/Shutterstock.

The Catholic Church on the Channel Island of Guernsey is holding an all-night prayer vigil Tuesday, immediately ahead of a debate on the liberalisation of abortion law in the island.

Some deputies, or legislators, have called for the debate to be delayed to allow wider consultation with residents.

A bill is being considered to ‘modernise’ the territory’s abortion law and increase the abortion time limit to 24 weeks, as it is in the UK. The existing law, adopted in 1997, permits abortion up to 12 weeks.

An all-night prayer vigil, which began the evening of June 16, is being held at St. Joseph’s Church in St. Peter Port. The vigil includes music, the rosary, night prayer, and the Divine Mercy chaplet.

The parish is also urging parishioners to write their deputies and to pray that the legislation fails.

The territory’s parliament, the States of Guernsey, are due to debate the draft law June 17. The territory is a self-governing Crown Dependency for which the UK is responsible, located off the coast of Normandy. It sets its own laws on abortion. The draft law would extend to Guernsey and its associated islands, but not Alderney and Sark, which are also part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey.

The draft law would also decriminalize the procurement of abortion outside the legal framework; drop a requirement that the mother consults with two medical practitioners; increase the time frame for procuring the abortion of a child diagnosed with ‘fetal anomaly’; allow nurses and midwives to perform medical abortions, and allow medical abortions at home.

It would also force conscientious objectors to make referrals without delay; “make clear that health practitioners may not refuse to participate in care required to save the life or prevent serious injury to the physical or mental health of a woman”; and “create a power in the Law for the Committee for Health & Social Care to make regulations making further provision in relation to the circumstances in which the right of health practitioners to conscientiously object to the provision of care in relation to abortions may be exercised.”

According to official figures, 113 abortions were performed in Guernsey in 2018, with a further three involving Guernsey residents performed in England and Wales.

Two of the 40 deputies of the States of Guernsey, Jane Stephens and Jonathan Le Tocq, have submitted a sursis motivé to stay the deliberation of the draft law, and direct the health and social care committee to form a working party “to conduct a broader and more inclusive public consultation … over a time-frame sufficient to ensure engagement with the wider community” and to research “challenges on the basis of disability and the implications of legal challenges and changes to the law in the British Isles which may affect reform in Guernsey.”

According to the Guernsey Press, Stephens said that deputies had received many emails indicating “that the public feel they have not had the time or opportunity to engage in the consultation properly because of lockdown, or actually discuss with each other about the implications of the debate.”

According to the health committee, two-thirds of responses it had received were supportive of the proposed changes.

The sursis will be considered June 17, but health committee members have said they expect it to be thrown out.

Stephens and Le Tocq have introduced several amendments to the draft law. Among these are amendments to ensure there is no discrimination on the basis of disability; to ensure that diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality shall not include non-fatal conditions such as Down syndrome or cleft palate; to require that mothers affirm they consent to the abortion and have not been coerced, and to strengthen conscientious objection for medical professionals.

Le Tocq and another deputy, Andrea Dudley-Owen, have introduced amendments to change the time limit to 22 rather than 24 weeks; allow foetal pain relief after 18 weeks, and to offer counselling before and after an abortion.

Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth, the diocese which includes Guernsey, urged Catholics earlier this month to resist the “fundamentally detestable” efforts to liberalise the island’s abortion law.

In a June 7 message he argued the proposed changes would violate the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” and the injunction “Love thy neighbour as thyself”, which formed the basis of laws in civilised societies.

“This is why abortion and the current proposal to ‘modernize’ — that is, to increase — its availability in Guernsey is fundamentally detestable,” he said. “Under the bogus word ‘modernisation,’ an attempt is being made to further liberalise abortion, to make it a lot easier and a lot more common.”

Egan said: “They want to allow abortions much later in pregnancy, abortions to be carried out with less red tape, abortions to take place at home and outside hospitals, and, grimly, abortions right up to birth for a disabled child, a child unwell, or a child with Downs syndrome. How must a person with Downs syndrome feel about this?”

“They refer to abortion euphemistically as a ‘procedure,’ a ‘termination’ with help from ‘the professionals.’ But what procedure can justify any professional terminating the life of an innocent baby? The more you see what an abortion is, the more you can see it is anti-life, anti-human and anti-woman.”

He added: “This is why I am appealing to all of you and to everyone of good will in Guernsey to resist and to face down these sinister proposals coming before the legislature. The post-COVID lockdown is not the right time to ram through legislation like this, not without a full, open and frank consultation and debate.”

In a joint letter, John P. Ogier, pastor of Spurgeon Baptist Church, and Fr. Bruce Barnes, the Catholic Dean of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, also criticised the timing of the debate.  

They wrote: “We believe this is an entirely inappropriate time to be considering such a sensitive and morally important issue, in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic and with such a truncated timescale for public debate and consideration.”