While at the Washington Theological Union, I volunteered the summer of 1985 to serve in the Capitol Hill mailroom of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. It was a rewarding experience, a good refresher in Civics 101 and the turning point in my pro-life convictions.
Until then I valued pre-born life as one fundamental right among others. I keenly regretted the senator’s leadership in the vanguard of “abortion rights,” but I believed that such an egregious error was offset by his untiring pursuit of social justice in so many crucially important areas.
I became more and more uncomfortable tolerating pro-abortion militancy when I stood alone with my thoughts, coming and going on the Red Line, a crammed commuter train.
The science of embryology leaves us awestruck about the miniscule beginnings of every human person. Initially, you and I were no larger than a pinpoint. Our genetic codes were in place, waiting only for the right conditions to nurture our ongoing maturation.
Sonogram technology dramatically pictures the fragile, interconnected stages of growth toward full term viability. However grainy the image may be, it’s clear we’re talking about human life with potential, not potential human life.
Yet a multi-billion dollar industry manipulates even professed Christians to ignore the violence done to women and the new life they carry. The relegation of abortion to a low priority of concern with vocabulary denying a “fetus” is a baby describes numerous churchgoers as well as non-believers.
What a tragic difference 150 years can make. The 19th century founders of the American feminist movement despised abortion as the worst kind of exploitation, a shirking of society’s responsibility to pull together and support the needs of women who are mothers.
Today’s “choice” ideology so darkens our moral awareness that priests refrain from speaking out prophetically against this evil, lest they offend women. Educators refuse to call embryonic life “personhood,” even though cells that split to become identical twins share the very same biological origin. Theologians think that deliberate killing inside a mother’s body could somehow resolve a hardship case!
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta connected the dots with mystical insight.
“Abortion is the seed of war,” she astutely warned.
Desecration of a pre-born baby and her mother slowly but surely compromises the intrinsic worth of anyone else in the human family thought to be a burden or threat: an unwanted newborn, a dementia patient “better served” by terminal sedation, a capital criminal, a dreaded foreign adversary.
Before his inspiring walk with terminal illness, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin modified the “seamless garment” metaphor he had used to champion a consistent ethic of life. He agreed that while all rights are interrelated, the rest flow from the right to life itself, which is, therefore, primary, the cornerstone of the whole edifice of human rights.
Pope John Paul II could not have been stronger in his official teaching as the Bishop of Rome: “The common outcry which is justly made on behalf of human rights … is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all our personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination” (The Lay Faithful of Christ #38).
Pope Benedict XVI, updating Catholic social ethics on the holistic development of peoples the world over, echoes the same point: “Openness to life is at the center of authentic human development. When a society moves toward the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the motivation and energy to strive for each person’s true good. If personal and social sensitivity toward the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable to society also wither away” (Charity in Truth #28).
Certainly, a renewed commitment to secure the premier human right can never be a single issue. A challenge from the pulpit defending a child in his mother’s womb must at the same time call a parish to offer whatever help is needed to alleviate a crisis pregnancy. Pope Benedict’s insistence that abortion is “today’s gravest injustice” requires pro-life activists to work tirelessly to correct those aggravating circumstances which pressure someone to choose such an evil.
The persistent search for health care reform, effective schools, job creation and the healing of our societal fabric authenticates our pro-life identity. But first things are first in fidelity to the Gospel. The most vulnerable among us hold pride of place across the spectrum of our social concern (Mt 25:40).
“Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized – the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old.”
Sen. Kennedy – 1971 and again now that he is home with God through the prayers of all of us who love him.