British pro-life campaigners have vowed to step up opposition to law changes that would lift all restrictions on abortion and called on church leaders to speak up more forcefully.

"It's time to remove the smokescreen of counterfeit compassion -- I was delighted to see so many saying no to abortion up to birth," said Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, director of the March for Life organization in the U.K.

"All religious leaders should be speaking out on this key Gospel value -- the dignity of life, created in God's image and likeness. Abortion has profoundly negative physical, mental and spiritual effects on women and men, and we need to pray for and support our religious leaders in witnessing with truth and courage," she said.

The lay Catholic spoke after a May 15 mass rally outside the Parliament in Westminster against proposed amendments to a government-backed Criminal Justice Bill, which would drastically liberalize pregnancy terminations.

In an OSV News interview, she said over 800 medical practitioners also had written to legislators urging them not to back the amendments, adding that her own group would join others in highlighting the risks of late-term abortions in private homes.

Meanwhile, another campaigner said the rally had depended on close cooperation between "all major pro-life groups," who would continue lobbying members of parliament to ensure "as robust an opposition as possible."

However, he also criticized British church leaders for "rarely speaking up for life," despite "many opportunities" to do so.

"From the outside, they seem afraid -- there's also a managerial, marketing culture that seeks to avoid saying anything which might lead to negative headlines," Paul Huxley, communications manager with the Christian Concern advocacy group, told OSV News.

"But as shepherds of the church, this is their job, and their failure to speak merely helps sideline Christians in cultural debates, putting more pressure on ordinary Christians who faithfully uphold life," he said. "Happily, that hasn't stopped all Protestants and Catholics from standing up for life -- and we'll be praying wholeheartedly that God will bless our efforts."

But in a May 13 statement, Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury said it was unusual for Catholic bishops to comment on parliamentary bills, adding that lay Christians held different views "freely and sincerely" on current problems and challenges.

However, he added that pro-life groups were right to stress the draconian nature of the proposed amendments, which threatened "the foundations of the sanctity of human life on which our society has been built."

The May 15 rally took place as British members of Parliament, or MPs, met for the "report stage" of the bill, widely seen as heralding the most significant changes since abortion was conditionally decriminalized in 1967.

An amendment, tabled by Labor Party politician Stella Creasy, would fully decriminalize abortion up to 24 weeks, while another, sponsored by Labor MP Diana Johnson, would prevent charges against any woman getting an abortion at any stage.

Two rival amendments, tabled by Conservative MPs Caroline Ansell and Liam Fox, would reduce the statutory time limit for abortions from 24 to 22 weeks, and de-legalize late-term terminations on babies with Down syndrome.

The Bishops' Conference of England and Wales encouraged Catholics to write to their MPs against the amendments to liberalize abortion, noting on its website that church leaders had "clear views" on the "dignity and value of every human life."

In a May 8 statement, meanwhile, the conference's lead bishop on life issues, Auxiliary Bishop John Sherrington of Westminster, said he was "deeply alarmed" by the proposed changes, which also could increase risks of "coerced or forced abortion."

"The church recognizes the struggle and trauma which may lead some pregnant women to consider an abortion. Such difficult situations require pastoral and medical care for vulnerable women in their time of need," Bishop Sherrington said.

"When cases of illegal abortions are prosecuted, it is for the judge to decide the appropriate balance of justice and mercy for all involved," he said. "Our current legislation provides some level of protection for pregnant mothers and unborn babies by keeping abortion within the criminal law. Relaxing abortion legislation further would be a tragic mistake for both mother and child."

Abortion remains technically illegal in Britain under an 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act, which brands it a felony incurring imprisonment and penal servitude.

However, the act was amended in 1967, waiving criminal sanctions for abortions under strictly defined conditions up to 28 weeks -- a deadline lowered to 24 weeks in 1991, still twice the European average.

During the first 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, when hospital access was limited, women up to 10 weeks pregnant were allowed to receive abortion pills by mail, and in March 2022 the measure was made permanent.

Although there were a record 214,256 abortions in England and Wales alone in 2021, the last year with available data, supporters of legal abortion demanded further liberalization after a mother of three, Carla Foster, was given a 28-month jail sentence in June 2023 for procuring abortion pills while 32 weeks pregnant.

Campaigners said they were heartened by the May 15 rally, organized by a dozen religious and secular pro-life groups, and urged legislators to prioritize support for pregnant women at a time of economic hardship.

"These barbaric amendments would essentially strip away the last meaningful protections of unborn babies," Christian Concern's Huxley told OSV News.

"The main effect would be to allow mothers to take deceitfully obtained abortion pills during late-stage pregnancy, when their children could survive outside the womb with proper care. Outside the world of social media and newspaper columns, the public supports more, not fewer, restrictions on abortion. When we speak to people on the street, we find many are unaware of what's happening and consider our current laws disturbing," he said.

Meanwhile, Vaughan-Spruce of March for Life told OSV News the proposed liberalization, which would allow "sex-selection abortions," was not supported by public opinion, and also urged church leaders to speak out.

"Our organization has run training days for clergy on how to speak effectively and compassionately," said the March for Life director, who has been arrested and charged twice for praying outside abortion facilities.

"We've also trained them in how to create a pro-life parish and foster the role of men in post-abortion healing. It's also important for the lay faithful, and all people of goodwill, to speak out against the erosion of human dignity in our laws and our society."

Surveys by the Savanta-ComRes polling agency have shown minimal -- 1% -- public backing for abortions up to birth and widespread concern, especially among young women, about abortion procedures at home. Pro-life groups planned follow-up protests when the Criminal Justice Bill is debated again June 4.

The communications director of the London-based bishops' conference, James Abbot, told OSV News May 16 no one was available to discuss abortion.