Culture of Life

  • Sandy Hingston writes in Philadelphia Magazine on two members of “Philly’s Young Advocates of Planned Parenthood,” a booster group.

    This caught my attention for a few reasons. First, because I’m the same age as the women featured in the article, but I hold a different perspective about what America’s spectrum of choice should look like. Second, because the language I’m excerpting reads less like opinion informed by experience and more like PR-speak. At the risk of being a man who has an opinion on human sexuality and public policy, I thought I’d reflect on this.

    “It’s an insidious attack,” [Joan Heider, 27] declares. “They insist they’re passing it to help women. That’s what Kathy Rapp” — the state representative who sponsored H.B. 1948 — “called her last bill in 2012, the one that pushed ultrasounds on women seeking abortion: ‘Women’s Right to Know.’” She’s getting even more worked up. “People pushing pro-life have a very simplistic understanding of women’s reproductive rights. Their activism doesn’t spring from a desire to protect the unborn; it’s to control women’s lives. They’re pro-no-sex-for-women. You can tell they’re hypocritical because they’re not in favor of birth control!”

    That’s right, of course. It’s long been an ambition of people like Rep. Kathy Rapp that she get to live a sexless life.

    Certainly, when I joined the board of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadephia four years ago, it was not to serve women—pregnant—who wanted to choose something other than abortion. If the mainstream Planned Parenthood narratives are to believed, how could people like me ever act in good faith, or really mean what they say? When you read excerpts like the one above, you’d think no one could ever identify as pro-life with an intent to serve women by providing things like a home or access to education, or simply loving support, in the face of parents or a boyfriend or someone else pressuring them to abort or face something like homelessness. No, everything is politics all of the time. We’re all worse off for that.

    There are certainly many pro-lifers, like me, who personally reject birth control because they believe it introduces a corrosive, transactional character into relationships. Yet I know no pro-life person whose lack of “favor” for birth control in their own lives translates into a fantastical desire to prohibit the existence or access to birth control in the public square.

    “I was always pro-choice,” says Heider, “but privately. Most people are. They’re not very vocal about it. The pro-life people are very vocal, and very willing to fight to restrict my rights. I want to take it back. I’ve worked to normalize discussions of abortion in my circle of friends.”

    It’s among some of my most pro-life friends that discussions of abortion are most normal. I’m not talking about discussions of abortion in abstract, or in terms of policy, but actual discussion of abortions that pro-life friends had in the past, and how that decision led them to where they are today.

  • “We create a culture of human dignity in the measure that we give our lives to others.” These words come from Archbishop Chaput’s recent talk in Utah, published in First Things:

    It’s important for our own integrity and the integrity of our country to fight for our convictions in the public square. Anything less is a kind of cowardice. But the greater task is to live what we claim to believe by our actions—fidelity to God, love for spouse and children; loyalty to friends; generosity to the poor; honesty and mercy in dealing with others; trust in the goodness of people; discipline and humility in demanding the most from ourselves.

    These things sound like pieties, and that’s all they are. Until we try to live them. Then their cost and their difficulty remind us that we create a culture of human dignity in the measure that we give our lives to others. Nations change when people change. And people change through the witness of other people—people like each of you here today. You make the future. You build it stone by stone with the choices you make.

    These words struck me as a better way to address human dignity’s thorny and divergent meanings, when I wrote recently that “dignity is a gift.”

  • Mary Ann Glendon writes the best short history I’ve come across on the history of “human dignity” as a moral, social, and political concept. I’m excerpting extensively to present what is, to my thinking, her most critically important thinking:

    It’s hard to imagine a decent politics that doesn’t depend on the notion of the dignity of the human person. It’s unfortunately also hard to specify how to anchor that notion in something beyond our earnest moral intuitions. As the bioethicist Adam Schulman poses the question: “Is dignity a useful concept, or is it a mere slogan that camouflages unconvincing arguments and unarticulated biases?” The question has implications far beyond the field of bioethics. Indeed, it has haunted the entire modern human rights project ever since the drafters of the UN Charter chose to begin that historic document with a profession of the member nations’ “faith” in “freedom and human rights” and in “the dignity and worth of the human person.” That act of faith in the wake of a war marked by unprecedented atrocities struck political realists of the day as astonishingly naive. Nevertheless, the concept of human dignity was made central to the scores of new constitutions and rights declarations that were adopted in the late twentieth century. …

    When the full horrors implicit in the idea of “life unworthy to live” (Lebensunwertesleben) came to light [post-World War II], the concept of the dignity of human life began to receive serious attention from opinion shapers.

    Building on the references in the UN Charter, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in the first line of its preamble that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” Article 1 of the UDHR affirmed that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The concept of human dignity became the hermeneutical key of constitutions like the German Basic Law of 1949, which opens with the statement that: “The dignity of man shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” …

    Among the proponents of these hopeful new charters, however, there was already a certain uneasiness about whether the concept of human dignity could really do all the work it was expected to do. For one thing, dignity was nowhere defined in these documents. Rather, as Adam Schulman has pointed out, the statesmen who drafted them seem to have used the word as “a placeholder for whatever it is about human beings that entitles them to basic human rights and freedoms.” …

    “Different understandings of the meanings of rights,” [Richard McKeon] wrote, “usually reflect divergent concepts of man and of society.” “Difficulties will be discovered,” McKeon predicted, “in the suspicions, suggested by these differences, concerning the tangential uses that might be made of a declaration of human rights for the purpose of advancing special interests.”

    For a while, it seemed that McKeon might have been overly pessimistic. The idea of human rights grounded in human dignity became the polestar of the movements that led to the nonviolent collapse of totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe and of apartheid in South Africa. And the dignity-based Universal Declaration became the single most important reference point for cross-national discussions of human rights. By the end of the twentieth century, however, McKeon’s prediction was borne out: The more that human rights ideas showed their moral force, the more special interest groups sought to capture the prestige of the human rights project for their own purposes. The concept of the dignity of human life was attacked by some, and co-opted by others.

    Population-control lobbies and proponents of sexual liberation mounted the first assault. The turbulent decades of the sexual revolution were accompanied by campaigns to have sexual liberties and abortion recognized as universal rights. Since the proposed new rights clashed with established rights relating to religion and the family, it was only a matter of time before advocates of sexual and abortion rights began to speak of “deconstructing and reconfiguring the human rights framework.”

    The postwar dignitarian constitutions and rights instruments, with their family protection provisions, became a principal target of these efforts. Test cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights resulted in decisions that many national laws were in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the “intimacy of private life.” That language in Article 8, originally a family-protection concept, has been reinterpreted by the European Court as grounding a right to individual self-determination in all matters relating to personal, sexual, and affective relationships.

    The assault on the dignity-based vision of human rights was particularly intense at the UN’s Beijing Women’s Conference in the fall of 1995. In fact, a European-led coalition attempted to remove the word “dignity” from the Beijing documents because they suspected it might be in tension with their particular view of gender equality. They also opposed all references to the Universal Declaration’s provisions on marriage, the family, religious freedom, protection of motherhood, and parental rights. The reason, apparently, was that those provisions were regarded as obstacles to the new sexual and reproductive rights for which the coalition hoped to gain recognition.

    Meanwhile, the idea of the dignity of human life was coming under attack from members of the scientific community who wished to remove obstacles to experimentation on human embryos. Stephen Pinker charged, in an article titled “The Stupidity of Dignity,” that the concept of dignity was not only meaningless but harmful when used to oppose biological innovations that could enhance or lengthen human life. The biotechnologists were joined in their efforts by the vast profit-making businesses that depend on the destruction of unborn human life—the in-vitro fertilization and abortion industries. In the affluent societies of the West, the idea of the value of unborn human life lost traction among people who had become inured to abortion, and who were now lured by hopes that embryonic experimentation would yield benefits in the form of prolonged longevity and enhanced youthfulness.

    Yet another offensive was launched by advocates of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Proponents of the right to control the time and manner of one’s death adopted the slogan “death with dignity” to counter the tendency of euthanasia opponents to speak of the duty to respect the dignity of human life from conception until natural death. To supporters of euthanasia, the dignity of the person primarily refers to the rights of the autonomous individual, while its critics emphasize the obligation to protect those whose autonomy is very limited. In a much-quoted article, bioethicist and UN consultant Ruth Macklin weighed in on the side of right-to-die advocates, dismissing dignity as “a useless concept” and arguing that it should be folded into other conceptions, such as respect for individual autonomy. …

    As Maritain observed about the future of the dignity-based human rights project: Whether it will be “in tune with or harmful to human dignity will depend primarily on the extent to which a culture of human dignity develops.” If Maritain was correct, the best protections for freedom and dignity will be in the habits and opinions of ordinary citizens and their political leaders, reflected in appropriate institutions.

    I’ve written on the Culture of Life and what a meaningful spectrum of choice might look like; these are both things that relate directly to some sense of the worth of the human person. It’s an important concept, obviously.

    What Mary Ann Glendon underscores is that, without a meaningful grounding in a shared sense of what “human dignity” is and where it comes from, the phrase can be a pretty-sounding weapon to be used by whichever tribe captures it to craft and impose its own vision of humanity.

    This colonial-style approach is at odds with Maritain’s observation in the final excerpted paragraph above: that a sense of human dignity has to flow from experience, rather than its implicit opposite, ideology.

  • Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles spoke recently on the Culture of Life, something I’ve written about before:

    Abortion and euthanasia raise basic questions of human rights and social justice in our society. Questions of what kind of society we are and what kind of people we want to be.”

    The archbishop recognized many problems in society.

    “Never before has there been so much talk about human freedom and dignity and self-realization. And yet we find ourselves more and more indifferent to the cruelty and injustice that we see all around us,” he lamented.

    These injustices include “grave crimes against human life” like widespread abortion, human embryo experimentation, and “the ‘quiet’ euthanasia of the old and sick.”

    These also include racial discrimination, unemployment and homelessness, and environmental pollution. The archbishop noted the problems of violence, drugs, “scandalous” prison conditions, the death penalty, and deportations and injustices in the immigration system.

    “I am not trying to say that all of these issues are ‘equal.’ They are not. And we always need to be clear about that,” he said.

    However, while not all equal, the issues are all important, he continued. “In the face of the suffering and human need in the world, we cannot compartmentalize our compassion or draw lines between those we will care about and those we will not.”

    The archbishop said the pro-life movement’s vision is “spiritual, not political.” This means it does not make sense for pro-life efforts to be separate from social justice efforts.

    “The cause of life is greater than the limitations of our political categories. We want a new culture, not a new political coalition.”

    I think it’s probably true that every social and cultural issue corresponds with a political issue. But the opposite is rarely true; most of our politics deals with issues that don’t meaningfully touch the lives of most people.

    The subject of the Culture of Life is different, because it touches upon the most fundamental questions: “What does it mean to be human?” and “Where does our dignity come from?”

    Answers always begin in the heart, which is reflected visibly in our relationships with each other—in our social and cultural relationships.

    If we’re humane in our culture, eventually that humanity will be reflected in our politics.

  • I’ve written a bit before about the aspiration to create a “Culture of Life Center” in Philadelphia.

    There are at least a half dozen pro-life nonprofits and social enterprises in the Greater Philadelphia area, but they’re dispersed and disconnected. There are no operational economies of scale, and people who are all part of a similar cultural movement aren’t connecting as often or as meaningfully as they should. A central Culture of Life Center would be an experimental step toward solving that problem.

    Elodie Larousse wrote recently on the “effect of leadership on community” in the context of coworking spaces. The takeaway is that a coworking space can’t just be a facility with a manager. It requires a leader, and for any Culture of Life Center, which would likely be run by the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, that means adding another responsibility onto our Executive Director’s plate, or finding a creative way to meet the need for conscious, intentional community-building in such a space.

    Simply working near other people, however similar, isn’t likely to make an impact.

  • Guiding Star

    I’ve written about the Culture of Life, and I’ve written on the need for there to be a true spectrum of choice for men and women who find themselves pregnant with no options other than abortion. If choice means anything, there needs to be more than one viable choice in the face of a pregnancy.

    Guiding Star in North Philadelphia has been providing alternative choices to abortion for women since 1992. The Christian Science Monitor explained Guiding Star’s mission in 1998 as “making motherhood an option,” and that remains a great way to describe it. Temple’s College of Public Health once highlighted the fact that “volunteers are paramount” to Guiding Star.

    In a culture where Planned Parenthood is seen as the only authentic voice for family planning, Guiding Star represents a radically more authentic approach for women looking for affirmation and support.

    But because the single-outcome politics of Planned Parenthood often starves authentic alternatives like Guiding Star from receiving public support, places like Guiding Star have always struggled to survive. The Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia has supported Guiding Star for many years, and we’ve always endorsed their vision, which is why their board of directors decided to merge their organization into ours to ensure not only survival, but growth. From the announcement earlier this year:

    Guiding Star provides housing for expectant mothers and their children, as an alternative to abortion. This program is unique in the Philadelphia region in that it welcomes both pregnant women and their children. We are proud of our decades-long partnership and grateful for this opportunity to create an even stronger continuum of care for women and families in our city.

    The Pro-Life Union regularly encounters abortion-vulnerable women through our sidewalk counseling, prayer vigils, and Pregnancy Hotline. With this change, we are already working to expand Guiding Star in several key ways:

    • Increase the number of women and children served with safe housing annually
    • Create a Family Center where Guiding Star clients in the community can receive baby supplies, gently used clothing, furniture, etc
    • Expand social services for residents and clients including counseling
    • Expand programming for residents and clients including parenting workshops, job training, and mentor support.

    Why does a woman need a place like Guiding Star? It turns out, often because abortion is seen as the only option. Not by the mother, but maybe by the father, who says he won’t love her if she has the child. Or maybe by her parents, who threaten to kick her out of the house if she doesn’t abort.

    These are the unacknowledged realities that Guiding Star exists to answer. I was grateful to be able to visit today for their Christmas party, and to be able to think through the future of this work.

  • I spent last night in Center City, Philadelphia with more than 1,000 friends to celebrate another year in working to build a Culture of Life. This was my fourth time attending the Stand Up For Life celebration, and its 34th anniversary.

    The short film above was shown during dinner and does a pretty good job capturing the work of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, which hosts Stand Up For Life.

    I think the most important realization of the Pro-Life Union and groups like it whose mission concerns the Culture of Life is the realization that politics alone is not the solution to the Culture of Death that plagues this country. A focus on service to others can do more to meaningfully change hearts, and ultimately change our politics.

    Service to people like Kendra—who was told by Planned Parenthood that she had a choice, when in fact they were really offering her one choice; which is no choice—are an example of that approach.

  • Kathryn Jean-Lopez’s latest update from the National Review Institute‘s Center for Religion, Culture, and Civil Society arrived in my inbox. It included a great example of a new aspect of the Culture of Life:

    Just a few days ago, I had the privilege of co-hosting Sister Magdalene Teresa of the Sisters of Life Visitation Mission in Washington, D.C., at the Heritage Foundation. The occasion was an event trying to help people see all the alternatives to health care and pregnancy help rooted in the culture of death. Sister Magdalene described some “typical” days at the mission, where women come through their doors looking for a listening ear and a real choice, as she put it.

    Women often come through the door of the Visitation Mission in New York feeling like their lives are over. “Every woman has great dreams. These dreams do not have to end when she becomes pregnant,” Sr. Magdalene says.

    The Sisters of Life exist to change her reality – to show her there are people who love her and will help her. They – and their network of 10,000 coworkers (who build cribs, are friends and mentors, and offer free medical help and legal advice), are hope for a culture of life, for a culture that embraces and encourages and heals. “Abortion fails women at every level,” Sr. Magdalene says. The Sisters are a beacon to help with flourishing.

    As undercover videos continue to shine a light on the miserable details behind an industry poisoned by a business model laced with the death of innocence, the Sisters of Life exist to offer something better. People want something better. Women need something better. Human life needs something better. They are just one among the beacons of life in our country who we need to know, encourage, and support.

    The idea that abortion is ever a necessity for living a full life? What’s implicit in that idea is that there is no real freedom to choose. If abortion is the only option that preserves a good life, we’re failing to create a meaningful spectrum of choice.

    Affirming men and women where they are, and supporting them without precondition or political judgment, are two ways the Culture of Life can create a better reality than the one we’ve got.

  • Joe Sobran wrote these words in November 1994:

    Does prayer work? (The Court tacitly assumes that it doesn’t.) The evasion of this question is typical of our public discussions. All sorts of political issues hinge on presuppositions about religious questions. And Christians have pretty much dropped the whole subject of the soul.

    Yet what else is finally at stake in abortion? Would you lightly kill a being with an immortal soul in need of God’s grace? Many Christians, who feel strongly that the answer is a horrified “No!” have accepted the secularist premise that we can’t talk about that in public.

    Nothing illustrates more powerfully than the abortion controversy that unless you believe that man has an immortal soul, there are limits — rational, logical limits — to how deeply you can believe in human dignity. This has nothing to do with how well-meaning you are. If you don’t believe that the soul exists, you are bound to regard pro-lifers who want to save even the tiniest embryo from destruction the way you’d regard the Hindu who believes that an insect may contain the transmigrated soul of one of his ancestors. You may be touched by his piety and conviction, but it will seem wildly exaggerated.

    In our stupid pragmatism, we keep trying to fashion laws for human beings without defining human nature. It can’t be done.

    I met Joe Sobran in Falls Church, Virginia in 2010, a few months before he died. As a public figure, his life was tumultuous. I wanted to meet him because his 1983 book “Single Issues: Essays on the Crucial Social Questions was one of the most lucid set of arguments for a Culture of Life that I had come across.

    On the “crucial social questions,” Sobran spoke to the sort of national first principles that grounded the Declaration and the Constitution in the first place.

    Nothing about our Constitutional system that has value without acknowledgement and affirmation of universal human dignity. As a nation, we’ve been litigating what that means more or less since we got started. It continues today.

  • Annual Meeting

    Annual Meeting

    Yesterday I shared some of John Lilly’s life advice, which included the idea of “finding your tribe.” That’s what I did tonight in Montgomery County for a bit. The Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia held its Annual Meeting at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Maple Glen, welcoming nearly 100 pro-life Catholic representatives and volunteers from across the region.

    As a board, we decided to start conducting our Annual Meeting as a public event in the spirit of transparency and coalition building. Those who made it out tonight are the people on the ground in communities around the city that work and witness to a Culture of Life on a day-to-day basis. They’re the force multipliers for the Pro-Life Union’s staff, and the eyes and ears who can help us understand where we’re making an impact, and when something we’re doing isn’t making an impact.

    So we pair our Annual Meeting with an Appreciation Dinner for these Christian representatives, and purposely look toward the year ahead to ensure we’re fulfilling our mission to “foster a cohesive vision and strategy for a Culture of Life across Greater Philadelphia.”