This article is an edited version of a speech presented at the annual dinner celebrating Milwaukee Birthright on April 20.
Some years ago, I happened to enter into a conversation with a group of high school youth from my parish, a group of young women who were discussing the pro-life issue. As I listened to the sharing of ideas, I was surprised to pick up an element of sympathy and even support for the pro-choice position. This not only surprised but saddened me, because this group of young women came from very devout and dedicated Catholic families in which the clear and consistent teaching of the Church against abortion most certainly was handed on.
I mentioned my curiosity as to what grounds these young women were basing their opinion, and as a few of them expressed their sentiment, it became clear to me that the primary motivation of the position of these Catholic youth was not focused on the matter of abortion itself. For example, there was no mention of traditional pro-abortion arguments such as whether the child in the womb is really a person or at what month it would be permissible to terminate a pregnancy.
Rather, my impression was that the real crux of the issue was one of personal rights — in particular the status of the rights of women. The concern of these young people was that our country was not fully respecting the role and place of women in society. That — despite the gains in the effort of women to engage in the public sphere — there still were many instances where women were denied their full power. Thus, the whole discussion which these young people were having about the abortion issue was immersed in the context of the right of women to exercise authority.
With sensitivity and delicacy, I sought to enter the conversation to interject a few comments. I said, “First of all, I want you to know that I fully support you as women in your effort to claim your rights in society. And, in almost all cases, I will support you 100 percent and stand beside you. For instance, I would be happy to join you in fighting for the right to enter into the profession of your choosing, to help break the glass ceiling that prevents you from climbing the ladder of promotion or to ensure that you receive equal pay for equal work. However, I cannot stand with you in the pursuit of the supposed ‘right’ advocated by the ‘pro-choice’ position. For, ultimately, the supposed ‘right’ proposed is a fallacy. It is not really a choice. It is primarily a denial. A denial of the right to life.”
Looking back at that conversation with those high school youth, I can detect the seeds of what has grown into a major component of the struggle we face today in the Right to Life movement. Much of the battleground upon which we fight concerns the issue of personal freedom and the claiming of individual rights. Most of the efforts of the pro-choice organizations seem to be invested in confining the debate to this sphere. That is because individual rights and human liberty are prized values in the history and culture of our United States. That focus on rights and liberty also tends to enable the pro-choice organizations an avenue to avoid dealing with the reality of what they also are defending — abortion, the taking of a human life. In such cases, the “rights and liberty defense” almost serves as a curtain to shield one’s view.
However, the organization which we celebrate and honor tonight, Milwaukee Birthright, has been aware of the parameters of this battle from its very inception. The core value of this organization is to place front and center the fact that the pro-life movement is a proclamation and defense of rights and liberty — the first and most basic right of all, the right to life. Moreover, the mission statement of Milwaukee Birthright speaks very clearly to its support of the rights of women in society:
“Birthright is an interfaith, inter-racial organization founded on the principle that it is the right of every pregnant woman to give birth and the right of every child to be born. Birthright believes that no woman should be forced to obtain an abortion because she is unaware of the practical, positive assistance that is available to her. Birthright provides information necessary for women involved in problem pregnancies to make enlightened, knowledgeable decisions about their futures and the futures of their unborn children.”
And, the mission statement of Milwaukee Birthright is not a matter of mere words. Each and every day, the organization offers the information which empowers women with the right to choose life — information which helps dismantle the obstacles which cloud the vision and inhibit the willpower to say “yes” to giving birth to a child. Access is provided to such assistance as pregnancy tests, housing, food, day care, education, employment, baby care items, diapers, clothes for infants and toddlers, and so forth. Most importantly, there is the availability of counseling 24/7 — an around-the-clock presence of someone who cares, someone to talk to and who will listen, someone who will provide help before, during and after the birth of the child.
This assistance appears to differ greatly from that which seems to be offered by most “pro-choice” organizations. The assistance which helps a woman envision the possibility of childbirth comes across as minimal. Rather, the default choice of such organizations normally is information and counsel about how to terminate the pregnancy. But, how can the offer of only one solution ever be considered a legitimate or real choice? And, how little confidence such organizations seem to have in the potential of women to confront the obstacles of a problem pregnancy and overcome them.
So, in the end, who is the true defender and promoter of the rights of women? I would contend that the real advocates for the rights of women are organizations like Milwaukee Birthright. Milwaukee Birthright believes in the power of women. Milwaukee Birthright trusts that women — aided with an appropriate amount of accurate information and proper assistance — have the ability to overcome challenges and adversity to claim the most honorable, esteemed and sacred of all rights — the power to give birth to life.