The History of the Origins of the Pro-Life Movement around the World


In the battle for the defense of life, the family, and traditional values, we are only fragile instruments in the hands of Divine Providence and we have the moral duty to be grateful to those who went before us and opened the way. This is why we cannot forget the first international conference for life, which took place in Rome from April 25-27 1980, on the initiative of the association Alleanza per la Vita, set up by Agostino Sanfratello, co-founder along with Giovanni Cantoni of Alleanza Cattolica in Italy.

On May 22 1978 Law 194 was passed, which legalized abortion in Italy. On October 16 of the same year, after the death of Paul VI and the brief pontificate of John Paul I, the pick for the papal throne was John Paul II, who would go on to make the fight against abortion one of the linchpins of his pontificate. It was within this historical horizon that on Friday April 25 an event opened in the main hall of the Augustinianum institute, a little way off from the Vatican, that was extraordinary for the quality and number of participants, convened in Rome at their own expense from all over the world.

For three days they tackled all sorts of topics in order to demand laws in keeping with the natural rights of man and the family and to adopt a shared stance on fighting for the abolition of pro-abortion laws. They examined the all-encompassing character of the process of intellectual and moral degradation of our time, denounced the connections between the spread of drugs, abortion, euthanasia, and terrorism. They reaffirmed the scientific facts that define the right to life from the moment of conception, asserted the philosophical, ethical, and juridical principles that safeguard the human person, agreed on a common approach for the repeal of the pro-abortion laws and the adoption of positive laws in defense of the family, the mother, the child.

The conference was attended by 500 participants and endorsed by eminent figures unable to contribute in person, including the philosopher Fr. Cornelio Fabro C.P.S; Fr. Dario Composta S.D.B, dean of the Faculty of Philosophy of the Pontifical Urbaniana University; Prof. Joël-Benoit d’Onorio, president of the Confédération de Juristes Catholiques de France; Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, president of the Sociedade Brasileira de Defesa da Tradição, Família e Propriedade (TFP); Marcel de Corte, professor emeritus at the University of Liège; Augusto Del Noce , professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Rome; Julien Freund, professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg; Dr. Wanda Poltawska, director of the Institute of Theology of the Family at the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Krakow.

In the general introduction to the conference Dominican Fr. Tito Sante Centi (1915-2011) spoke of the objectivity of ethics and morals, showing how the negation of this objective morality leads to perfect relativism, according to which everything that happens is right by the very fact of having happened. Against this historical agnosticism, and against its intra-ecclesial version, which is modernism, it is necessary to rediscover and reaffirm the perennial philosophy that teaches that reason can know reality and delineate values that remain immutable in the flow of history.

The leading figure of the conference was, however, Prof. Jérôme Lejeune (1926-1994), a geneticist of worldwide renown, proclaimed venerable by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints on January 21 2021. In his talk, Prof. Lejeune reviewed the main symptoms of the eclipse of scientific reason, focusing in particular on genetic manipulation, abortion, and infanticide. It is necessary to return to humility and realism, Lejeune affirmed: the logic of computers today rediscovers elemental ancient truths according to which the structure of the knowledge of reality is made up of “yeses” and “nos,” never of “maybes.” It is the logic of the Gospel: “Let your speech be yes yes, no no: anything more comes from the Evil One.”

Another prominent figure was Margaret White (1910-1993), a magistrate in England, vice-president of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC). The British pro-life leader criticized the two main sophisms of abortion propaganda: that the human fetus is not a person, that abortion is not harmful to a woman’s health. These – she said – are unsustainable theses from a medical and scientific point of view, but are easily affirmed in a world where even animals are more protected and safeguarded than unborn children. The situation is dramatic – she concluded – but right here in Rome, at the tomb of the Apostles, we must be able to reclaim the religious and moral motivations that allow us to hope and persevere in the struggle.

The German doctor Siegfried Ernst (1915-2001), vice president of the World Federation of Doctors who Respect Human Life, reiterated the link between pornography and abortion, denouncing the spread of pornography not only in the West, but also – a relatively new phenomenon – in the Third World, where, as elsewhere, the pornographic explosion precedes and accompanies abortion.

The juridical aspect was touched upon by Giovanni Cantoni (1938-2020), national regent of Alleanza Cattolica, who explained how, along with the birth of a legalism that considers as lawful everything that is in keeping with the external form of the law and procedure, the first of the natural rights, the right to life, is denied with abortion. Legalized abortion inaugurates perfect totalitarianism as a mixed regime of tyranny, oligarchy, and demagogy.

The lawyer Dennis J. Horan , (1932-1988), president of Americans United for Life, dealt with the topic of euthanasia, which has become tragically relevant in all countries that by accepting abortion have renounced the principle of respect for life. Horan, who between 1970 and 1988 had an enormous influence on the legal protection of life in America, denounced in his talk the ambiguity of the concept of “brain death” that was beginning to be talked about in those years. Another American was the doctor Herbert Ratner (1907-1997), editor of Child and Family Quarterly, who identified abortion as the flagship moment of a process that has its most extensive and pervasive aspect in the spread of artificial contraceptive methods and in the removal of the mother’s children from breastfeeding and the nursery. 

From France Geneviève Poullot (1928-2018), general secretary of Laissez-les vivre and national head of SOS Futures Mères, highlighted two aspects of abortionist propaganda: the systematic denigration of motherhood, presented as incidental and almost as a disease, and an affinity for abortion, the tragic reality of which is hidden under adulterated terminology.

In his report, read by Michel de Penfentenyo (1927-2018), Emerentienne de Lagrange (1904-1994), professor at Clermont-Ferrand, addressed the problem of the promotion of abortion by powerful “cultural” and economic forces orchestrated by the Masonic lodges.

The French demographer Emmanuel Tremblay (1920-2009), president of Europa Pro Vita, explained how abortion is now dragging the West down lower than much of the ancient world and many so-called “primitive” societies, opening the way to a terrible chain of death that links together the termination of pregnancy, euthanasia, the extermination of political opponents in concentration camps.

The Belgian lawyer Charles Convent (1908-1995), secretary of Europa Pro Vita, explained the situation of the present hour, inviting anti-abortion associations to fight, with abortion and its theorists, the tendencies towards the sexual revolution and pornography, which pave the way for abortion.

Peggy Norris, president of the International Pro-Life Information Centre, and Rev. Alan Rabjohns, chairman of SPUC, illustrated the fight in England against the Abortion Act and its consequences; Rev. Eugene Ahern, editor of Right to Life News, presented the situation in Australia. The attorney Patrick Trueman, executive director of Americans United for Life, described the methods of the legislative and electoral pro-life struggle in the United States, while Dr. Jean-Jacques Pitteloud, of the Association Suisse des Médecins pour le Respect de la Vie, presented the main anti-abortion initiatives underway in his country. 

Among the other speakers we also remember: the Dutchman Karel F. Gunning, president of the World Federation of Doctors who Respect Human Life; Mercedes Wilson, president of the US branch of the World Organisation Ovulation Method Billings; Prof. Manlio Mazziotti di Celso, of the University of Rome; Prof. Honorio Sanjuan Nadal, president of the Asociatión Pro-Respecto a la Vida Humana in Barcelona; dr. François Megevand, of the Center d’Études pour une Politique de la Vie; Dr. Massimo Introvigne, of Alleanza Cattolica; Dr. Hartwig Holzgartner, president of Ärztlichen Kreis u. Bezirksverbandes of Munich; Dr. Gottfried Roth, professor of Pastoral Medicine in Vienna and editor-in-chief of Arzt und Chris; Passionist Fr. Pedro Richards, director of the Centro Nacional de Planificacion Natural de la Familia; Stefan Wilkanowicz, director of Znake magazine and member of the Commission for the laity of the Polish Episcopate.

Agostino Sanfratello, president of Alleanza Per la Vita, concluded the congress, stating that the reconquest of the truth and its social projection is possible, if we know how to overcome our weakness, the slackness of part of the Catholic world, the deceptions and traps of the opponents’ blocking moves. “Let us entrust the outcome of our fight and the good cause of defending the innocent blood of so many of her children to the Blessed Virgin Mary, asking that she obtain for us the strength necessary to fight the good fight.

The conference, which opened with a laudatory letter from Cardinal Joseph Höffner, archbishop of Cologne and president of the German Bishops’ Conference, ended on Saturday April 26 1980, with a special audience with the Holy Father John Paul. On this occasion the Supreme Pontiff spoke briefly with the participants, addressing them these words: “I wish to greet in a particular way all those who have placed themselves at the service of life and who make this service an ideal to which they consecrate their intelligence, their imagination, their time, their powers. Human life is sacred, meaning that it is removed from any arbitrary power that wants to damage it, injure, it or even suppress it. From the moment of conception to the last instant of natural survival over time, it is worthy of respect, attention, efforts to safeguard its rights and elevate its quality. I can therefore only approve of and encourage all those who devote themselves to the service of such a noble cause, and I ask God to bless them.”

On February 11 1994, with the Motu Proprio Vitae Mysterium, John Paul II established the Pontifical Academy for Life, entrusting the presidency to Prof. Jérôme Lejeune, who passed away three months later. On March 25 1995, the Holy Father published the encyclical Evangelium Vitae.

The international conference of 1980 undoubtedly contributed to creating the conditions for a stronger and more effective defense of life in Italy and in the world, and can be a source of inspiration for a joining of forces in the present moment, as is already happening with the Marches for the Life in the world.

I participated in the organization of that congress and I wanted to bear witness to this while anticipating that Prof. Agostino Sanfratello, founder of the event and pioneer of the pro-life movement in Italy, may provide us with a more thorough memoir.