The bishops of England, Wales, and Scotland are marking the 50th anniversary of the legalization of abortion in most of the United Kingdom by pointing out there “is widespread unease among many people who recognize that a woman’s decision to have an abortion carries with it tragic consequences.”

The bishops urged that prayer and fasting be used for the protection of human life, and warned against the erosion of conscience rights for medical personnel in the nation.

The call came in a message signed by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, the president of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland.

The 1967 UK Abortion Act made abortion legal in England, Wales, and Scotland until the 28th week of pregnancy, although this was limited to 24 weeks in 1990.

There are exceptions allowed after this time in cases affecting the life of the mother, grave risk of physical or mental injury to the mother, or extreme fetal abnormality.

Although considered one of the most liberal abortion regimes at the time, the current law in Britain is much more restrictive than most in the United States, and even requires the consultation of two doctors before an abortion can be permitted.

Abortion remains largely illegal in Northern Ireland.

The bishops said the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act also gives an opportunity to reflect on the “truth about the dignity of human life and the vitality and potentiality of the child in the womb.

“The challenge that faces our society today is to recover an understanding of the immeasurable good of each unborn child and to value his or her life with even greater respect,” the statement reads.

Since the Act was passed, over 8.7 million abortions have been performed in the United Kingdom, and nearly 200,000 abortions take place there every year.

The bishops’ statement lamented the fact that in modern Britain, the appeal to freedom of choice is increasingly centered on the resolution of dilemmas and difficulties according to their emotional impact and a person’s immediate desires.

“Each individual’s choice must take into account the wider ramifications of their decisions which, inevitably, have a profound effect beyond the person making them. In the case of abortion, decisions and choices need to acknowledge the duty to cherish human life and to foster its flourishing beyond the circumstances of any one person, however challenging these may be,” the bishops said.

They also pointed to a “particular contradiction” in the legislation allowing the killing of an unborn child diagnosed with a disability, saying it is a “stark contradiction” to the protections afforded people with disability after birth.

“The past fifty years have witnessed a deepening of society’s respect and understanding for people with disability, and legislation has helped disabled people achieve fulfilling lives,” the statement read, giving the example of those participating in the Paralympic games.

“We hope that greater reflection and consistency in the approach to unborn children with disabilities will lead to a change in understanding, with greater protection provided through new legislation,” the bishops said.

Advancements in prenatal healthcare were also highlighted, and the bishops said they held “in high esteem all those who dedicate their lives to serving in antenatal and special care baby units for their commitment to nurturing human life in its early stages.”

This is significant, because UK abortion law restrictions on when an abortion can take place are based on the possible viability of the child outside of the womb. In 2008, an attempt was made to lower the limit of when an abortion would be allowed to either 22 or 20 weeks due to improvements in prenatal medicine, but it failed in Parliament, despite polls showing most of the population supported the change.

The bishops’ statement also spoke against efforts to strip conscience protections from medical and other healthcare personnel when it comes to abortion.

“Personal conscience is inviolable and no-one should be forced to act against their properly formed conscience in these matters,” the statement said. “This is something which needs greater debate in our society. Most recently we have witnessed the possibility of pharmacists losing their right not to dispense abortifacients if it is against their conscience or religion.”

The bishops concluded their statement by praising women who “in difficult and adverse conditions” decide to continue their pregnancies and give birth.

They also thanked those who worked through the political system to protect human life, urging “those who seek to reform the current abortion legislation to continue their good work.

“As Catholics, we urge that, throughout our countries, prayer and fasting be used for the protection of human life, especially for life within the womb, for all expectant mothers, for fathers and families,” the bishops said.

The bishops’ statement comes after the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the British Medical Association both issued statements calling for the decriminalization of abortion, despite the objection of large numbers of their members.