In 1966 two ordinary members of the public, Alan Smith and Elspeth Rhys-Williams, had a conversation about forming a group to oppose David Steel's abortion bill, which had been presented in Parliament.
In Britain before 1967, the law gave substantial protection to unborn children. In the case of R. v. Bourne (1938) the jury upheld the judge's view that an abortion could lawfully be done to prevent the mother from becoming "a physical or mental wreck." On this view of the law, abortion was allowed on serious medical grounds, but abortion on demand was certainly unlawful
In 1966, the founder members of SPUC recognised that the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill (which became the Abortion Act 1967) then before Parliament would drastically change the law, leading to abortion on demand. The society was formed to oppose the Bill. Aleck Bourne, the gynaecologist who had instigated the landmark court case of 1938, had become increasingly appalled that his case was being used to justify the new legislation, and became a founder member of SPUC.
Following that initial conversation between Alan Smith and Elspeth Rhys-Williams, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) was established at a meeting in central London, held in the Wig and Pen Club in the Strand (above). SPUC was formally launched on Wednesday 11th January 1967 as the first group anywhere in the world formed to campaign against legalised abortion.
While Alan, Elspeth and many of the other founders were Anglicans, they believed it was important that SPUC appeal to people of all faiths and none and unite pro-lifers across the UK. We remain a non-denominational, inclusive organisation which welcomes everybody who upholds the right to life.
SPUC endorses the recognition by the world community in the 1959 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child that the child "needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth."
Fighting on the front lines
Ever since 1967, we've been on the frontline in every important legislative battle over abortion in the UK, as well as fighting to protect the human embryo in the earliest and most vulnerable situations - taking a principled stand against the 'test-tube baby' process, IVF. The targeting of disabled babies in the womb for abortion has exposed society’s discrimination against those with disabilities. We support disability rights activists in opposing euthanasia and assisted suicide/assisted dying.
We've engaged in many critical legal cases to defend human life, in international forums such as the United Nations, as well as widespread educational campaigns arguing in schools, campuses, the mass media and other forums for the universal right to life.
Talking on the history of SPUC, Chief Executive John Smeaton gave the following speech (excerpt, 2011).
"Alan Smith, who remains a member of SPUC’s executive committee and on its national council, was elected joint honorary secretary of the Society at that meeting in the Strand.
Speaking to me about today’s anniversary, Alan said: “It’s an important landmark in the pro-life movement of which I’m pleased to be part.” According to the faded, yellowing, copy of the minutes on my desk those present were (in the chair) The Rt. Hon. the Viscount Barrington, Miss Phyllis Court (my predecessor as SPUC national director, Phyllis Bowman), Miss E. Rhys-Williams (above, now Mrs Elspeth Chowdharay-Best), Professor J.S. Scott and Mr Alan Smith.
Alan Smith and Elspeth Chowdharay-Best first discussed the formation of SPUC… in July 1966. Elspeth had suggested that Alan Smith write to The Spectator opposing the passage of the Termination of Pregnancy Bill (later the Abortion Act 1967) which was then going through Parliament. When The Spectator failed to publish his letter, they felt “something more formal should be done” so he and Elspeth Rhys-Williams wrote round to academics, political and religious leaders with a view to forming an organization which became the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. Phyllis Bowman played a major role in the Society’s successful launch. She and Elspeth knew each other through their work for the National Birthday Trust.
It was the first specifically pro-life group to be formed in the world… One of the fifteen people elected on that occasion to serve on the executive committee was Dr Aleck Bourne.
In 1938, Dr Bourne had performed an abortion on a 14-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted by five off-duty British soldiers. He gave himself up to the police, was charged with performing an illegal abortion, put on trial and acquitted on the grounds that the girl would have become ‘a mental wreck’ if she had not had the abortion. As a result of the Bourne case, more and more abortions began to be practised in Britain in cases where the woman’s physical or mental health was thought to be in danger, a loophole in the law that was interpreted increasingly loosely. Dr Bourne became so concerned about the results of his action that he became a founder member of SPUC.
Those also elected were The Rt Rev the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells, Mr Owen Barfield, Professor Sir Andrew Claye, Mrs Christopher Davson, Professor Ian Donald (who pioneered the use of diagnostic ultrasound in medicine), Lady Glyn, Dr C.B. Goodhart, Mr Joseph Hiley MP, Professor Peter Huntingford, Mrs K Irvine, Mr Alasdair MacKenzie MP, Professor J.C. McClure Browne, Dr R.A. Newton and Mr Gordon Oakes MP."
(John Smeaton, speaking in 2011)