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March for Life 2017

The 44th March for Life took place in Washington this morning. I stayed at the Mayflower Hotel last night, picked up my board packets for tomorrow from FedEx Office at 16th and K Street, and then Ubered to the Washington Monument where the stage was set for the Vice President Mike Pence’s noon appearance. It’s the first time in its history that anyone this high-ranking in government is attending the march.

We’re approaching the half century mark for an America where we encourage men and women to abort unexpected children rather than equip those parents with the resources they need to care for their children. In any nation, but especially the wealthiest in the world, this is social failure. There’s simply no ethical, medical, or scientific escaping what takes place in an abortion, whether at 3 weeks, 30 weeks, or the heinous and only semi-recently outlawed “partial birth” (read: birth) abortions that were banned barely a decade ago.

After Mother Teresa’s National Prayer Breakfast address in the early 1990s (which I’ve written about previously), her lawyers filed a petition that included this:

“America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe vs. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has aggravated the derogation of the father’s role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts—a child—as a competitor, an intrusion and an inconvenience. It has nominally accorded mothers unfettered dominion over the dependent lives of their physically dependent sons and daughters. And, in granting this unconscionable power, it has exposed many women to unjust and selfish demands from their husbands or other sexual partners.

“Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government,” she said. “They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity. The right to life does not depend, and must not be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent or sovereign. The Constitutional Court of the Federal Republic of Germany recently ruled: ‘The unborn child is entitled to its right to life independently of its acceptance by its mother; this is an elementary and inalienable right which emanates from the dignity of the human being.’

“Americans may feel justly proud that Germany in 1993 was able to recognize the sanctity of human life. You must weep that your own government, at present, seems blind to this truth.”

The first step is recognizing what abortion is. Once we achieve unity in acknowledging the reality of the thing, we can talk shop on the social policies we need to ensure no one is burdened with raising child they aren’t equipped to raise, and that every mother who wants to keep her child is supported with whatever she needs: housing, tuition assistance, anti-discrimination protections, and whatever else.

It’s as much chance as anything else that I’m here to say these things, which is why I feel an obligation to speak and get people uncomfortable when necessary to stir conversation to a point where we can reach that political unity to really empower mothers with a true spectrum of choice, rather than just giving them one choice.

Hentoff’s slippery slope

Nat Hentoff, great free speech defender and civil libertarian, died last week. I remember my grandmother reading and praising Hentoff’s incisive and provocative writing when I was growing up. I’m sharing an excerpt from Hentoff’s 1986 Chicago talk on The Indivisible Fight for Life:

I’ll begin by indicating how I became aware, very belatedly, of the “indivisibility of life.” I mention this fragment of autobiography only be cause I think it may be useful to those who are interested in bringing others like me – some people are not interested in making the ranks more heterogeneous, but others are, as I’ve been finding out – to a realization that the “slippery slope” is far more than a metaphor.

When I say “like me,” I suppose in some respects I’m regarded as a “liberal,” although I often stray from that category, and certainly a civil libertarian – though the ACLU and I are in profound disagreement on the matters of abortion, handicapped infants and euthanasia, because I think they have forsaken basic civil liberties in dealing with these issues. I’m considered a liberal except for that unaccountable heresy of recent years that has to do with pro-life matters.

It’s all the more unaccountable to a lot of people because I remain an atheist, a Jewish atheist. (That’s a special branch of the division.) I think the question I’m most often asked from both sides is, “How do you presume to have this kind of moral conception without a belief in God?” And the answer is, “It’s harder.” But it’s not impossible.

For me, this transformation started with the reporting I did on the Babies Doe. While covering the story, I came across a number of physicians, medical writers, staff people in Congress and some members of the House and Senate who were convinced that making it possible for a spina bifida or a Down syndrome infant to die was the equivalent of what they called a “late abortion.” And surely, they felt, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Now, I had not been thinking about abortion at all. I had not thought about it for years. I had what W. H. Auden called in another context a “rehearsed response.” You mentioned abortion and I would say, “Oh yeah, that’s a fundamental part of women’s liberation,” and that was the end of it.

But then I started hearing about “late abortion.” The simple “fact” that the infant had been born, proponents suggest, should not get in the way of mercifully saving him or her from a life hardly worth living. At the same time, the parents are saved from the financial and emotional burden of caring for an imperfect child.

And then I heard the head of the Reproductive Freedom Rights unit of the ACLU saying – this was at the same time as the Baby Jane Doe story was developing on Long Island – at a forum, “I don’t know what all this fuss is about. Dealing with these handicapped infants is really an extension of women’s reproductive freedom rights, women’s right to control their own bodies.”

That stopped me. It seemed to me we were not talking about Roe v. Wade. These infants were born. And having been born, as persons under the Constitution, they were entitled to at least the same rights as people on death row – due process, equal protection of the law. So for the first time, I began to pay attention to the “slippery slope” warnings of pro-lifers I read about or had seen on television. Because abortion had become legal and easily available, that argument ran – as you well know – infanticide would eventually become openly permissible, to be followed by euthanasia for infirm, expensive senior citizens.

And then in the New York Review of Books , I saw the respected, though not by me, Australian bio-ethicist Peter Singer boldly assert that the slope was not slippery at all, but rather a logical throughway once you got on to it. This is what he said – and I’ve heard this in variant forms from many, many people who consider themselves compassionate, concerned with the pow erless and all that.

Singer: “The pro-life groups were right about one thing, the location of the baby inside or outside the womb cannot make much of a moral differ ence. We cannot coherently hold it is alright to kill a fetus a week before birth, but as soon as the baby is born everything must be done to keep it alive. The solution, however,” said Singer, “is not to accept the pro-life view that the fetus is a human being with the same moral status as yours or mine. The solution is the very opposite, to abandon the idea that all human life is of equal worth.” Which, of course, the majority of the Court had already done in Roe v. Wade.

The heart of pro-life philosophy can be approached through two questions:

  1. Do we believe that all life is created equal and deserving of equal protection of its inalienable rights?
  2. Do we believe that life exists prior to birth?

Marketing specific people

Marc writes:

You cannot take a picture of a general “mother” or “child.” You cannot photograph the idea of “pregnancy,” “family,” or “abortion” — only this pregnancy, this family, and this abortion. A photograph of a child is always of a real, particular child, who stood at a particular place and a particular time and had his photo taken. Photography is always photography of the real.

The difficulty for the pro-life movement is that, as it works for the abolition of abortion, it uses pictures of children, not as pictures of this or that real, particular child, but as stand-ins for “the child in general.” When a stock-photo of Mitchell, a beautiful baby, forms the background of a sign that reads “Protect Life,” no one imagines it is demanding that we protect Mitchell’s life. Mitchell has since grown up into a pimply, 19-year old communist working at a 7-11. We do not see him in the image. We see the general idea of “the child.” He has become a symbol. The rhetorical success of the baby-sign depends on us seeing “through” Mitchell and towards the general idea of “baby,” “child,” “person.” The image presents the person anonymously — and anonymous images can inspire apathy in the gaze that sees them.

I think it’s time that pro-life marketers turn to featuring survivors of abortion, and testimonies of mothers and fathers who chose to bear their children—rather than essentially stock photos of cradled babies. We need to understand the human stories that led to, resulted in, and benefited from the choice for life.

Solidarity, segmentation, spiritual degradation and intimacy

David Brooks writes in The Power of a Dinner Table:

The kids who show up at Kathy and David’s have endured the ordeals of modern poverty: homelessness, hunger, abuse, sexual assault. Almost all have seen death firsthand — to a sibling, friend or parent.

It’s anomalous for them to have a bed at home. One 21-year-old woman came to dinner last week and said this was the first time she’d been around a family table since she was 11.

And yet by some miracle, hostile soil has produced charismatic flowers. Thursday dinner is the big social occasion of the week. Kids come from around the city. Spicy chicken and black rice are served. Cellphones are banned (“Be in the now,” Kathy says).

The kids call Kathy and David “Momma” and “Dad,” are unfailingly polite, clear the dishes, turn toward one another’s love like plants toward the sun and burst with big glowing personalities. Birthdays and graduations are celebrated. Songs are performed.

I started going to dinner there about two years ago, hungry for something beyond food. Each meal we go around the table, and everybody has to say something nobody else knows about them.

Each meal we demonstrate our commitment to care for one another. I took my daughter once and on the way out she said, “That’s the warmest place I can ever imagine.” …

Bill Milliken, a veteran youth activist, is often asked which programs turn around kids’ lives. “I still haven’t seen one program change one kid’s life,” he says. “What changes people is relationships. Somebody willing to walk through the shadow of the valley of adolescence with them.”

Souls are not saved in bundles. Love is the necessary force.

The problems facing this country are deeper than the labor participation rate and ISIS. It’s a crisis of solidarity, a crisis of segmentation, spiritual degradation and intimacy.

It’s said at one point in this piece: “The kids can project total self-confidence one minute and then slide into utter lostness the next.” That’s life, isn’t it?

What’s so beautiful about this is that Kathy and David’s example doesn’t have to be just an example of older folks making a place for younger ones. It can be an example simply for how to be human beings to each other. If there’s “a crisis of solidarity, a crisis of segmentation, spiritual degradation and intimacy,” that’s a human problem.

What we need more of is family and community, in that order.

Changing bioethics

Wesley Smith writes on the direction of Western bioethics:

If you want to see what is likely to go awry in medical ethics and public healthcare policy, pay attention to the advocacy of bioethicists—at least of those who don’t identify themselves as “conservative” or “Catholic.” In their many journal articles and presentations at academic symposia, they unabashedly advocate for discarding the sanctity- and equality-of-life ethic as our moral cornerstone. Instead, most favor invidious and systemic medical discrimination predicated on a patient’s “quality of life,” which would endow the young, healthy, and able-bodied with the highest moral value—and, hence, with the greatest claim to medical resources.

Thanks to the work of bioethics, life-taking policies that a few decades ago were “unthinkable” now are unremarkable. Withholding tube-supplied food and water from the cognitively disabled until they die—Terri Schiavo’s fate—is now legal and popularly accepted, much like abortion. The legalization of assisted suicide is a constant threat. Even where lethal prescriptions or injections cannot be legally provided, some of our most notable bioethicists urge that doctors be permitted to help the elderly and others commit suicide by self-starvation—a process known in euthanasia advocacy circles as VSED (Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking).

Promoters of the culture of death never rest on their laurels. Listed below are a few of the more dangerous “advances” being promoted in bioethics…

We are building the infrastructure, through medical and insurance policies, as much as cultural sensitivities that suppose every law should favor exceptional personal choices rather than general principles, for a less humane society. Smith’s book Culture of Death: The Age of ‘Do Harm’ Medicine is a good primer for understanding how and why.

It occurred to me recently that most of the time that we casually use the phrase “end of life issues,” we’re not actually talking about true “you’re dying” moments, but just the “life issues” that lead to difficult questions about the future.

There’s an important role for Christians willing to conserve and promote an historically-rooted, humane bioethics in the years to come. They’ll be hated for it.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Teresa of the Missionaries of Charity was canonized a saint by Pope Francis yesterday in Rome. I remember her 1997 death and her later-revealed witness as a “saint of darkness,” which made her even more fascinating to me. (Bishop Barron has a short reflection on this.)

There’s this idea that the saints of any generation are likely to be the men and women who most contradict their own generation—who contradict its sense of what’s true about human life, about virtue, about life generally. In Mother Teresa we see the servant of the poor in India in the form of a woman who contradicts her era and place’s indifference to rampant human misery through simple human encounter. This was her witness to what we now call the developing world. But in Mother Teresa we also see her as a voice to the developed world in what the fullness of her witness to Western nations. Two examples of this witness that stand out are her 1979 Nobel Prize lecture and her 1994 National Prayer Breakfast address in Washington.

In 1979 she reflects on the simple way human encounter starts: “…let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love, and once we begin to love each other naturally we want to do something.” This reflection arrives after, however, an extended commentary where she three times comments on abortion as a gateway practice to the denial of human personhood:

I was surprised in the West to see so many young boys and girls given into drugs, and I tried to find out why – why is it like that, and the answer was: Because there is no one in the family to receive them. Father and mother are so busy they have no time. Young parents are in some institution and the child takes back to the street and gets involved in something. We are talking of peace. These are things that break peace, but I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing – direct murder by the mother herself. And we read in the Scripture, for God says very clearly: Even if a mother could forget her child – I will not forget you – I have carved you in the palm of my hand. We are carved in the palm of His hand, so close to Him that unborn child has been carved in the hand of God. And that is what strikes me most, the beginning of that sentence, that even if a mother could forget something impossible – but even if she could forget – I will not forget you. And today the greatest means – the greatest destroyer of peace is abortion. And we who are standing here – our parents wanted us. We would not be here if our parents would do that to us. Our children, we want them, we love them, but what of the millions. Many people are very, very concerned with the children in India, with the children in Africa where quite a number die, maybe of malnutrition, of hunger and so on, but millions are dying deliberately by the will of the mother. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today. Because if a mother can kill her own child – what is left for me to kill you and you kill me – there is nothing between. And this I appeal in India, I appeal everywhere: Let us bring the child back, and this year being the child’s year: What have we done for the child? At the beginning of the year I told, I spoke everywhere and I said: Let us make this year that we make every single child born, and unborn, wanted. And today is the end of the year, have we really made the children wanted? I will give you something terrifying. We are fighting abortion by adoption, we have saved thousands of lives, we have sent words to all the clinics, to the hospitals, police stations – please don’t destroy the child, we will take the child. So every hour of the day and night it is always somebody, we have quite a number of unwedded mothers – tell them come, we will take care of you, we will take the child from you, and we will get a home for the child. And we have a tremendous demand from families who have no children, that is the blessing of God for us.

In her later address at the National Prayer Breakfast, Mother Teresa echoes some of these thoughts while developing others further, addressing a crisis at the heart of Western affluence:

I can never forget the experience I had in visiting a home where they kept all these old parents of sons and daughters who had just put them into an institution and forgotten them—maybe. I saw that in that home these old people had everything—good food, comfortable place, television, everything, but everyone was looking toward the door. And I did not see a single one with a smile on the face. I turned to Sister and I asked: “Why do these people who have every comfort here, why are they all looking toward the door? Why are they not smiling?”

I am so used to seeing the smiles on our people, even the dying ones smile. And Sister said: “This is the way it is nearly every day. They are expecting, they are hoping that a son or daughter will come to visit them. They are hurt because they are forgotten.” And see, this neglect to love brings spiritual poverty. Maybe in our own family we have somebody who is feeling lonely, who is feeling sick, who is feeling worried. Are we there? Are we willing to give until it hurts in order to be with our families, or do we put our own interests first? These are the questions we must ask ourselves, especially as we begin this year of the family. We must remember that love begins at home and we must also remember that the future of humanity passes through the family.

In opposition to Western autonomy—where we can do what we want, right up until we put our parents (or we find ourselves put) in the old folks home, left to look toward the doors, Teresa offers the possibility of family as the place where we discover our humanity. Learning to live in love with those closest to us is presented as the best way to “practice” the sort of love that any humanitarian would need deeply embedded within himself before he could go out and offer it to the wider people of the world. Teresa’s critique of the West is that our obsession with autonomy requires a violence at the heart of our culture:

By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems. And, by abortion, the father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. That father is likely to put other women into the same trouble. So abortion just leads to more abortion. Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.

It is in these insights that Mother Teresa so vividly emerges as the 20th century’s great counter-witness, great saintly contradictor of Margaret Sanger’s worship of autonomy at the expense of humanity.

When I pick up a person from the street, hungry, I give him a plate of rice, a piece of bread. But a person who is shut out, who feels unwanted, unloved, terrified, the person who has been thrown out of society —that spiritual poverty is much harder to overcome. And abortion, which often follows from contraception, brings a people to be spiritually poor, and that is the worst poverty and the most difficult to overcome.

 

Witness, with less preaching

When Catholics speak about a “Culture of Life,” how many who hear the phrase have any experiential context for understanding what it describes? After a year on the board of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia and affiliation with other pro-life efforts, I’m increasingly wondering at the strategic priorities of the pro-life movement, because I’m doubtful that Catholics, for instance, are sufficiently incarnating the meaning of the philosophy in the context of their communities.

I mean, in other words, that speaking about respect for life is experientially meaningless in the context of a community rocked daily by murder, poverty, and drugs. I mean, in other words, that speaking about respect for the life of the family has no resonance with even most Catholics, whose lives have been impacted by the same pregnancy, contraceptive, and marriage/divorce problems as the wider culture.

From a strategic perspective, I’m wondering if the pro-life movement might be emphasizing the wrong things as its core strategy—that is, emphasizing things like crisis pregnancy response rather than working to enculturate a joy for large families among those who already perceive the Culture of Life’s meaning. There is a strategic worth to making the Culture of Life about actually incarnating its philosophy—that is, building up large families and working to make joy their hallmark. With such a focus on crisis response and public political activity, I can sympathize with the idea that the Culture of Life is a reactive rather than proactive movement. I can also see how hearing the words “crisis” coupled with “pregnancy” one too many times can make it sound like pregnancy might be something other than an event fundamentally to be sought and celebrated.

At minimum, I’m increasingly thinking that the “Culture of Life” won’t be genuinely convincing if it doesn’t give rise to an obvious, tangible witness in the form of joyful and healthy families. And in the drive among our core believers to wage battles in the civic and cultural square, I fear we might be losing focus of the first priority of our philosophy, which is encouraging, sustaining, and supporting joyful, healthy families.

If those who expound on the Culture of Life end up having one or two kids like the rest of their community, their philosophy won’t seem terribly compelling—and I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard pro-life leaders explicitly celebrate sex and family as a first-order priority.