Culture of Life

  • Pro-Life Union board retreat

    The Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia is one of countless organizations across the country that came alive in the years prior to Roe v. Wade, and whose mission and scope can basically be summed up as “proclaiming the sanctity of all life.” While a lot of the Pro-Life Union’s activity centers on providing mothers and fathers with alternatives to abortion (like housing, job opportunities, financial literacy, spiritual resources, etc.) it is just as much focused on promoting the basics for strong marriages and healthy sexual experiences and how to preserve the dignity of self and others throughout life, particularly at its natural conclusion.

    As vice-chair of the board for the past few years, I’ve been grateful to be a part of the Pro-Life Union’s evolution over the past five years and a number of key changes in its structure that have equipped it for the years and decades to come. I’m also looking forward to elevating new leadership later this year.

    I’ve been wanting to put together a board retreat for the Pro-Life Union for a while, and with much of the board having been refreshed in the past few years the right moment came to try this. We held a healthy and fruitful social retreat for ~4 hours in Mount Airy, Philadelphia—specifically at Saint Raymond of Penafort church, where one of our board members is pastor. Afterwards, a number of people took me aside to comment that it was a great opportunity to get to know each other better. That’s exactly what I wanted to happen, and I hope this can be the start of an annual board tradition to ensure board members know each other as human beings, rather than just as peers who come together periodically to discuss/vote on corporate issues.

    Why are you pro-life? What led you to the Pro-Life Union? What do you want to leave behind? What do you think is your greatest strength as a pro-life witness? What’s your greatest weakness?

  • 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?
  • 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.

  • The Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia celebrated its annual “Stand Up For Life” Dinner in Center City, Philadelphia last night.

    This was my fifth year in attendance, and this is also my fifth year serving on the Pro-Life Union’s board. It’s a critically important organization working in four vital areas: alternatives, public affairs, education, and prayer and witness/outreach. We had about 1,300 guests last night for Karen Gaffney, our keynote speaker who riffed on her experiences as a public advocate for anti-Downs Syndrome discrimination in a society that’s increasingly breathing in a eugenics mentality. If I remember correctly, something like 90 percent of Downs-diagnosed children are terminated in utero.

    Edel Finnegan, our executive director, shared some of the practical perspective of the pro-life mentality in the short video above: women deserve options and love, not just “services” rendered on a cost basis at a local clinic.

    I think that’s what real freedom to choose has to be about if it’s going to be authentic rather than just a political slogan.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Greg Kendra speaks with Kristen Day, Executive Director of Democrats for Life of America in this short interview, who has maybe “the loneliest job in the world.” 

    Democrats for Life declares: “We believe in the fundamental worth, dignity, and equality of all people. We believe that the protection of human life is the foundation of human rights, authentic freedom, and good government.” Day explains:

    Democrats For Life is a non-profit organization representing the views of 21 million pro-life Democrats. We are a national coalition seeking to promote the pro-life position within the Democratic Party and to support pro-life Democrats seeking political office. We promote a consistent ethic of life and consequently oppose abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment. We also advocate for policies that promote the protection of life, and support families, such as the Pregnant Women Support Act (Pregnancy Assistant Fund) and others.

    Regarding abortion, we believe that the answer to a crisis pregnancy is to eliminate the crisis—not the child.

    We don’t believe women should have to “choose” between motherhood and a decent, safe life. We believe it is going to take emphasis on the support side, which Democrats are good on, to truly give women real choice. A livable wage, affordable children care, paid leave, and flexible hours all help families who are faced with an unplanned or planned pregnancy.

    She talks about her members committing themselves “to an enduring change of heart in our country” that reflects on the Democratic Party’s inclusion of “opposition to the death penalty and support for paid maternity leave” but their simultaneous “commitment to the abortion industry to a new level.” Yet: “…the party platform is out of step with views of Americans, and we have data which supports this fact.”

    The near total capture of the Democratic Party is a recent development. Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey was a bold, pro-life leader, for instance. His son, whatever his personal beliefs, is emblematic of the present generation which has knelt before Planned Parenthood’s singular vision for what constitutes the public good. Yet in their hearts, I suspect most mainstream Democrats from Joe Biden to Tim Kaine to John Kerry to Jimmy Carter are looking for the political space to defy the taboo of the party. Kerry’s Pepperdine University remarks, which Day highlights in her interview, are an example of what so many will say when the spotlight and the threat of groupthink enforcers has diminished:

    “How will we protect the weakest in our midst—innocent unborn children? How will our nation resist what Pope John Paul II calls a ‘culture of death’? How can we keep our nation from turning to violence to solve some of its most difficult problems—abortion to deal with difficult pregnancies; the death penalty to combat crime; euthanasia and assisted suicide to deal with the burdens of age, illness, and disability; and war to address international disputes?”

    A more pluralistic Democratic Party would be good for the country.

  • Gracy Olmstead writes beautifully on motherhood and our attitude toward life:

    The modern feminist movement often equates motherhood with loss of self-fulfillment and freedom, cultural subjugation, a gross abandonment of the economic sphere. Yes, motherhood can be okay—but only if you don’t have a child too young, and are still participating in the workforce. Motherhood may be alright—if it happens entirely according to your preconceived plan, and you have a partner who willingly and equally shares all burdens of childcare and provision.

    The purpose of these cautions is to invest women with a sense of control over their lives and child planning. But it seems that their unintended consequence is often more damaging: because any woman whose childbearing story does not fit this script suddenly sees her life, or her child, as anti-woman, anti-freedom. The 19-year-old pregnant woman sees no possibility of having her child and being self-fulfilled. The young businesswoman who planned on having kids seven years down the road, surprised with an unexpected pregnancy, suddenly fears that she’s thrown away all possibility of vocational success and attainment.

    Yet these stories are often untrue and misleading. They distract us from the reality that life is always uncontrollable. And they distract us from the possibility that—as Manguso points out—while motherhood may indeed lead us out of our present self, in that leading out, we may find a new and better self awaiting us. 

    … whether a woman chooses abortion, or whether she chooses motherhood, a life will be rent asunder. The challenge is in helping her decide which life will be torn.