Cardinal Keith O'Brien, president of the bishops' conference of Scotland, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, president of the bishops' conference of England and Wales, said this in a letter published Monday, marking the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act.
The prelates noted that the development of technology over the last 40 years has brought new understanding of the beginnings of human life.
"In 1967, ultrasound was a primitive tool," they wrote. "Ultrasound scanners today can reveal in extraordinary detail the development of a human life in the womb. Premature babies are now able to survive at ever younger ages.
"Developmental biology makes increasingly clear the beautiful and intricate processes of continuous development and growth of the single unique organism that is formed at conception."
The cardinals lamented, "We have one of the most liberal abortion laws in Europe with abortion up to 24 weeks and abortion in the case of disability -- and on some other grounds -- up to birth." They noted that in their countries, some 200,000 abortions are performed every year.
The cardinals affirmed that the slogan "a woman's right to choose" denies the role of the father in the life of the child.
"It seems to pass over the fact that the majority of men do want to be fathers of their children," they said. "If we accept 'a woman's right to choose' as the governing principle of such a profound choice between life and death, then rather than encouraging men to accept responsibility, it can support their denial or avoidance.
"This is why we believe that abortion is not only a personal choice, it is about the choices our society makes to support women, their partners and families in these situations. If our society makes life its choice then there is no reason why the child, the mother and the father, and indeed the whole family of society cannot grow to fulfill their potential. Abortion robs everyone of their future. Individually and as a society we believe we have another choice: to give birth to life."
The cardinals proposed seven steps to help bring about change, including "respecting and supporting the decision of those in health care who refuse to perform or assist in abortions on grounds of conscience," and developing better educational programs.
"The Catholic Church offers to participate with others in working for this timely change of heart and mind," they concluded. "We hope and pray for the sake of our common humanity, and the lives at stake, that the next 40 years will tell a very different story. The time to take a different path is now."