We’re not just born into the world. We’re born from the world. By “world,” I don’t just mean mother earth. I mean society – mankind’s most basic and providential calling. Society, though, is troubled. It has been so since “the beginning.” The trouble started with some good angels gone bad. “God separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:4). Division started on Day One. Some angels had control issues. They didn’t want to be humble servants. They were (and are) the “dark.” Others remained faithful and wanted to serve God, man and creation. They were (and are) the “light.” Darkness rivaled Light. Darkness deceived Eve into stealing “fruit” from the “tree” of knowledge of good and evil. Chaos. Cain killed Abel. History follows. Grief upon grief. We’re all born “into” and “from” this tragic drama. Original sin. We’re all born damaged goods.
Birth isn’t chosen. Parents aren’t chosen. The “time” and “place” into which we were born weren’t chosen. Name, sex, race, childhood home, wealth or poverty, physical attributes, natural dispositions, first language, culture, country or how we’d be nurtured or not nurtured in childhood – none of these were chosen. Our religion, or lack thereof, wasn’t chosen – at least not at first. These things might be called “gift” and “mother.” Whatever we’re born “into” and “from,” we must navigate “through” and “from” as we learn to choose, as we grow from childhood to adulthood, from adulthood to old age, from this life to the next.
Trouble is sensed from the get-go. That’s why babies cry. Life’s treacherous. We get burned. Trust is risky. Yet, we must trust. But who? Without trust we can’t love or be loved. We’d die. The umbilical cord is snipped, and we’re launched into this perilous journey, with little instruction. We grow old, possibly, and the people we love often leave us behind. We’re more and more on our own. And yet, age makes us more and more dependent on people we don’t know. Loneliness casts a shadow. We become vulnerable again, like children. Death is the loneliest passage of all, save for the grace of a Last Holy Communion – Viaticum (I go with you). As we navigate, wisdom sets in, but fewer and fewer people take us seriously. The promising roads of youth prove but dead ends and rabbit holes to nothing. Youth is wasted on youth. Beyond youth, we discover life’s most fearful fact: limitations. We’re challenged. And broken.
We must think about life in order to renew it daily. But our thoughts often shed little light. So we ponder in prayer, seeking light from God. Grace is necessary, no matter how good our intentions. How do we find life? "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). How do we lose life in order to save it? How do we nurture it? Personally? Socially?
There’s a movement that’s been challenging our conscience on these matters since 1974. Thousands of people will descend upon Washington, DC this week to participate in the March for Life. Among them are hundreds of University of Notre Dame students, hosted by St. Agnes. Since the first March for Life in 1974, the pro-life movement has continually challenged our nation to examine its conscience. Even some critics admit that the pro-life movement raises important questions and provokes important discussions. What is life? What’s it about? How do we treat it, in all aspects, in all cases? The pro-life movement isn’t a comfortable cause, for neither its opponents nor its supporters. It raises moral questions. It makes personal and social demands. How do we handle vulnerability? How should science serve life? How should public policy serve life? How do we build a life-giving society? For the past forty-five years, the pro-life movement has sought to re-awaken – and broaden the application – of the principles espoused by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That is to say, a person has rights that must be protected by law, which is an “ordinance of reason.” Law ought to apply transcendent truths – which stand over and above opinions – to public life. Some things – some rights – transcend “the public.” In the decade before “right-to-life” became a national issue, Martin Luther King was perhaps the most eloquent spokesman of that forthcoming movement’s most basic principles.
“[The Prologue of the U.S. Constitution] says that each individual has certain basic rights that are neither conferred by nor derived from the state. To discover where they come from it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity, for they are God-given. Very seldom if ever in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us that every man is heir to the legacy of worthiness.” (“The American Dream,” Commencement address of Lincoln University, June 6, 1961)
Civil rights and pro-life movements – which are rooted in similar (if not the same) presumptions about human nature and human rights – challenge us to examine the roles of law, society and culture, not only in protecting life but also in caring for it. Life is related to environment, and law is part of that environment. Life flourishes only if its environment is healthy and life-giving. Life needs what Catholic social teaching calls “human ecology” – economic ecology, social ecology, cultural ecology and an ecology of daily life.
The question as to whether or not human life begins at conception – or at fertilization – should not be raised as if it were something we don’t know. We do know. We know when life begins. Only willed or feigned ignorance says otherwise. We know now, more than ever, that fertilization begins a new life that is neither the life of the mother nor the life of the father. It’s the same species as its mother and its father. And it has unique genetic potential. This isn’t just something we know now. We knew it well enough almost fifty years ago, before Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion nationwide. A September 1970 editorial in California Medicine said this:
“The process of eroding the old ethic and substituting the new has already begun. It may be seen most clearly in changing attitudes toward human abortion. In defiance of the long held Western ethic of intrinsic and equal value for every human life regardless of its stage, condition, or status, abortion is becoming acceptable by society as moral, right, and even necessary… [S]ince the old ethic has not been fully displaced it has been necessary to separate the idea of abortion from the idea of killing, which continues to be socially abhorrent. The result has been a curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra- or extra-uterine until death. The very considerable semantic gymnastics which are required to rationalize abortion as anything but taking a human life would be ludicrous if they were not often put forth under socially impeccable auspices. It is suggested that this schizophrenic sort of subterfuge is necessary because while a new ethic is being accepted the old one has not yet been rejected.” (California Medicine, 113, no. 3, 1970)
California Medicine highlights the “curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra- or extra-uterine until death.” Dishonesty pretends otherwise. The editorial avoids value judgments, like a bored spectator, about evolving attitudes toward killing. We have no choice but to embrace the “new ethic” as if it were inevitable, like evolution, the article suggests. The process of displacing the “old ethic” of killing being “socially abhorrent” requires a transitional period of “semantic gymnastics” in order to justify abortion. It requires a “schizophrenic sort of subterfuge” – i.e. lying – until we no longer find killing to be “socially abhorrent.” Until the “old ethic” of “intrinsic and equal value for every human life” is “fully displaced,” it will be necessary to lie about it.
Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" "I don't know," he replied. (Genesis 4:9)
G.K. Chesterton said that the madman is not the one who has lost his reason but the one who has lost everything but his reason. We can convince ourselves of anything, if we’re only willing to deny what we know and what we’re capable of knowing. We’re “born into” and “born from” a troubled world – a world that became troubled because of a lie, a little disobedience, a little shame, a petty envy, a homicide and another lie. The pro-life movement should be an icon of restoring respect for the unborn, care for the weak and vulnerable, the dignity of the relationship between men and women, the beauty of chastity, the pursuit of virtue, the integrity of marriage, the dignity of work, justice to the poor and misplaced, the formation of children, respect for the elderly and ethical care for the sick and dying. The means employed by the pro-life movement should always be as noble as the ends it seeks. The pro-life movement should remind everyone that life must be given again and again until death – and of life after death. This is the Christian mission.
“I came that they might have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor