LONDON (CNS) — Catholics must strive to help British society rediscover the value and inviolability of human life after 50 years of legal abortion, British bishops said.

In a joint statement issued Oct. 23 to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act, which falls on Oct. 27, the bishops of England, Wales and Scotland warned Catholics and others that Britain was in danger of losing the sense of human life as sacred.

“Against the cultural trend that often sees abortion as being about ‘the right to an obvious and free choice’ there is an urgent need to teach about the inviolability of human life, from conception to its natural end, and to help everyone appreciate the value of every human life without exception,” they said in their statement.

“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 ever greater respect,” they said.

The statement was signed by Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow, president of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland.

The Act made Britain one of the first countries outside the communist world to legalize abortion. Technically, abortion remains a criminal offense unless two doctors agree that strict criteria have been met.

In practice, however, the Act is interpreted extremely liberally and, since it came into force in early 1968, some 8 million abortions have been performed, most recently at the rate of about 200,000 a year.

Prayer vigils will be held all over Britain Oct. 27-29 to mark the passage of the Act, and pro-life activists will gather for a minute’s silence in Parliament Square, London, in remembrance of the unborn killed by abortion.

Pro-abortion activists are using the anniversary of the Act, however, to campaign for total decriminalization of abortion.

In their statement, the bishops expressed concern over the “erosion of respect” for medical professionals who object to involvement in abortions on grounds of conscience, a right guaranteed by the 1967 Act.

They also voiced strong objections to a 1990 amendment to the Act, which permits abortion up to birth for babies with disabilities.

But they also reminded the public that mothers who opted for abortion were not always to blame for their actions in complex situations.

“In such situations, the capacity to exercise choice can be compromised with a consequent limitation on a person’s moral culpability,” they said in their statement, adding that God would show “unfailing mercy” to those who sought forgiveness afterwards.

The statement concluded by thanking all people struggling to uphold the inviolability of human life and who offered pro-life counselling and practical help to women confronted by unplanned or unwanted pregnancies.