Human Lives, Human Rights
by Archbishop John J. O’Connor
October 15, 1984
“…we affirm as an incontestable and sacred principle, respect for every form of human life, life that is awakening, life that asks only to develop, life that is drawing to a close; life especially that is weak, unprovided for, defenseless, at the mercy of others.”
Following is the prepared text of Archbishop John J. O’Connor’s October 15 address, sponsored by the Institute on Human Values in Medical Ethics of New York Medical College with Flower Hospital, at Cathedral High School in Manhattan.
A Nation’s Enduring Heartache
Let me start by telling you the story of the man who puzzled his daughter when he told her that the day he had his heart attack was the happiest day of his life. Then he explained why.
“It is very simple, my child,” he said. “I have witnessed so much death and suffering and survived it all. At times I wondered if I had a heart at all. This heart attack reassured me that I indeed have one. For how can a man without a heart have a heart attack?”
The story is my favorite among the Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust told by Professor Yaffa Eliach of the Department of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College.
The pain of the heart attack was reassuring to the man because it proved to him that he had not been hardened to human suffering by the experiences he had survived. He still had a heart!
There is a great deal of pain in our country today. I am not happy about it, but I am encouraged by it. I am encouraged to believe that there is deep pain throughout the land in respect to a number of crucial problems. I believe, further, that this profound and pervasive anxiety is rooted in the reality that as a people we do have a heart–an enormous heart, a warm and generous heart, a heart that is experiencing a gnawing pain, an enduring heartache, if not an outright spiritual and emotional heart attack.
Our Unease Over Injustices
We know that we are doing so many things right as a nation, but we know, too, or we feel, a vague uneasiness and, at times an acute anxiety, that we are doing some things wrong — terribly wrong.
We know there is something wrong as we pass the bag ladies, the bagmen in the streets. We know there is something wrong about gentrification that flushes lonely, elderly people out of homes and apartments with absolutely no place to go. We know there is something wrong when drugs control and destroy our neighborhoods, when we can’t build prisons fast enough to meet the demand. We know there is something wrong when the most incredible pornography is defended as freedom of speech, when child abuse reaches horrifying proportions, when people are disenfranchised or exploited because of where they were born, or their sex, or the color of their skin. We know there is in the sexual exploitation and violence that Father Bruce Ritter deals with every day right here in Manhattan, and in the hopelessness of the burned-out buildings in cities all over the country. We know there is something wrong in Central America, in the Middle East, in the north of Ireland, in Cambodia and in Poland, in much of the vast continent of Africa, and elsewhere in the world. We know there is something wrong, something terrifyingly wrong, about the arms race, and about the horrifying potential of nuclear weapons.
And all of this knowledge and more pains us, because we are basically a good people, a good and kind and merciful people. And the pain comes in knowing that we are doing some things terribly wrong and in either not truly wanting to right them, or in not seeming to know how to right them. So, many of us — a great many of us — do what is very understandable: we try to forget the problems, to busy ourselves with a thousand legitimate preoccupations, to hope that someone else will solve the problems, or that they will simply go away. Like the bag people. We didn’t put them on the streets. We don’t want them on the streets. We can’t understand why they are on the streets, we disbelieve how many are on the streets, we wish they would go away, or someone would take them away. But in the meanwhile, particularly as we hustle to our own homes on bitter winter nights, we, pass them by, and we know they are there, and the knowing pains us, because we know simultaneously that somehow, there has to be a better way.
National Anxiety Over Abortion
I am deeply concerned that it is this kind of uneasiness, this same kind of anxiety, this same kind of pain that we feel as a nation, knowing that we lose 4,000 lives every day through abortion. And that’s a large part of the answer to the question people ask me all the time: Why is this front-page news all over the country? Why are people talking about it all over the world? No single statement by any one bishop–no series of statements by all the bishops combined — could have created the depth and the breadth and the intensity of feeling about this if it hadn’t been there all along, stirring down inside us, gnawing at our hearts. You can’t make an issue out of a non-issue. This one was there, long before a single bishop said a single word.
We know, somehow, whatever our religious persuasion, that there is something wrong when one and a half million unborn human lives are taken every year in our beloved country. We know that, whatever the reason, there must be a better way. We know that this magnificent country, with its incredible resources, its ability to put a man on the moon, the skill to transplant hearts, the heart to give our lives for the oppressed all over the world — this marvelous country must surely have a better answer to the violence of poverty, than to inflict the violence of death on the innocent; it must surely have a better answer for the lonely, confused, frightened young woman, the teenager, the 10- or 11- or 12-year-old pregnant girl, than to destroy the new life within her. Our nation must surely have more to offer a bewildered family than the money to help pay for a daughter’s abortion. Our society must, surely must, have more support for the woman torn with conflict over a pregnancy than to point her toward an abortion clinic.
Is this simply a religious perspective? Is my grief over abortion born merely of what I have been taught as a Catholic? I can’t believe that. I know that millions of Jews, Protestants, Orthodox, Muslims, people of many other religious persuasions and people who profess no religion at all, grieve as I do over this destruction of life.
Abortion: The Destruction of Life
Or is abortion not the destruction of life? Are we, in fact, not putting babies to death?
If we are not destroying human life, of course, then our concern, our anxiety, our pain over abortion virtually disappears. There is a dramatic difference between removing 4,000 pieces of tissue each day from the bodies of 4,000 women and taking the lives of 4,000 babies.
Human Life Before Birth: Medical Evidence
What is abortion, then? Can we face that question honestly? Can we raise it without rancor, without accusation, without judgment or condemnation of anyone? Surely it is a crucial question. Surely it deserves an answer. One of the very reasons I wanted to give this talk to an audience composed largely of medical people, is that I believe that you, in particular, must ask and answer this question honestly. I turn to you and to your medical colleagues for what you and they have to say. I do not ask you or them to speak from religious beliefs. I do not ask you or them to determine at what point the unborn becomes a human person. I ask you and them to speak from your common sense experience of human life and from the scientific evidence you observe.
I turn, for example, to Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the well-known Jewish obstetrician-gynecologist who identifies himself as an atheist. Doctor Nathanson’s background is fascinating. By his own admission, he presided over 60,000 abortions in the first and largest abortion clinic in the Western world, the clinic he directed. He now calls those abortions 60,000 deaths. Here are his own words:
Some time ago — after a tenure of a year and a half I resigned as director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health. The Center had performed 60,000 abortions. . . . I am deeply troubled by my own increasing certainty that I had in fact presided over 60,000 deaths.
There is no longer serious doubt in my mind that human life exists within the womb from the very onset of pregnancy, despite the fact that the nature of the intrauterine life has been the subject of considerable dispute in the past.
Electrocardiographic evidence of heart function has been established in embryos as early as six weeks. Electroencephalographic recordings of human brain activity have been noted in embryos at eight weeks. Our capacity to measure signs of life is daily becoming more sophisticated, and as time goes by, we will doubtless be able to isolate life signs at earlier stages in fetal development.
Doctor Nathanson now spends a large part of his life pleading against abortion, not because of a religious conversion, but because of the evidence yielded by ultrasound scanning, intra-uterine surgery, in vitro fertilization and other advances in science and technology. Dr. Nathanson previously used the impersonal term “alpha” to describe what he now calls “the person in the womb.” Scientific findings have convinced him beyond a shadow of a doubt that “prenatality is just another passage in our lives — lives which commence with fertilization and end with death.”
In our own day, miracles of modern science confirm what we have known all along — that life exists in the womb. Reporting on an article by Dr. Mitchell S. Golbus called “Healing the Unborn,” the 1983 Medical and Health Annual of the Encyclopedia Britannica says: “Prenatal medicine is now beginning to he able to intervene, before birth, to alleviate, and even cure conditions that previously would have severely compromised the fetus. This promises survival for thousands of threatened lives…. The concept that the fetus is a patient, an individual whose disorders are a proper subject for medical therapy, has been established.”
This was surely the attitude Sir William Liley had in mind when he lamented the direction that too many in the medical world and society in general have taken. Sir William, of the faculty of the Postgraduate School of Obstetrics and Gynecology of the University of Auckland, listed a series of developments that gave us new insights into the miracle of life before birth, and then continued:
Human Life Before Birth: Everyday Evidence
Some evidence, however, does seem to make a profound impression on many medical and lay people as well. That’s what happened when Congressman Lawrence J. Hogan saw some startling pictures, as he told a congressional subcommittee on constitutional amendments:
Until a few years ago, I did not think much about abortion. It did not mean very much to me. I somehow equated it with birth control.
My brother, Doctor William Hogan, who. . . is with me today, and is an obstetrician, had been trying to discuss abortion with me, but I kept putting him off saying that it was not a popular political issue.
Finally, one day he came to my house and showed me some color pictures of what unborn babies look like. I saw what some people call a chemical reaction, sucking a thumb. I saw perfectly formed human babies just a few weeks from conception. I saw the pictures of the 21 week old fetus, a little girl, who survived out of the womb. I saw other little babies who did not survive. Some were scalded red from saline solution which flushed them from the womb. I saw others torn apart from the machine. I could see a little foot and a little hand. I was stunned. I was shocked. And I was bitterly ashamed.
I did not know what I really thought abortion was. I just did not think very much about it. But, certainly I did not think we were killing babies. How could I have been so stupid?
It’ we are not killing babies in abortion, what are we doing?
When discarded fetuses are found in the trash, why are we horrified? Why do we rebel when our highest court tells us that the matter of when life begins is constitutionally irrelevant? In the light of all that, we know, and in the name of sheer common sense, is it not because we are profoundly convinced that the unborn child is human? What can we possibly say except that we are putting to death 4,000 human beings every day – one and a half million every year.
Isn’t there something wrong with this? Where does it all stop?
The Agony of Decision
I know there are those who sincerely believe that abortion is an evil, but that not to have an abortion might be even worse. I know it, and my heart goes out to them. I know there are women and parents and young girls who are frantic about a pregnancy. They don’t know which way to turn or what to do. They’re under enormous pressure. Who can condemn them? Who can fail to understand all they’re going through? Their abortions are still tragic; their babies are still put to death. But they think they’re doing the right thing. Do I condemn them for feeling that way? No, never. I would do anything I could to help them pick up the pieces of their lives after an abortion.
The same is true of families, of parents who might abhor the idea of abortion, but when their own daughter is pregnant, believe that unless she has an abortion her life will be ruined. There can be no question of the grief they feel, the conflict that rips at their very hearts, the deep suffering they endure in coming to a decision that an abortion is the only way.
But is it? Is it the only way? Is it the best answer we can come up with after these many centuries of civilization? What does it do to the woman herself, the young girl, the family?
I wish there were time to read to you some of the letters I have received from women who have had abortions, or from families that encouraged or urged or even pressured them to do so. I am speaking of women and of families of all religious persuasions and of none. Many suffer for years. My own heart aches for them. I try to respond to the best of my ability, to offer them whatever help I possibly can. But in some cases, I fear, the wound never seems to heal. In my view, the tragedy in every such case is at least doubled: an innocent baby has been deprived of life, a woman has been deprived of peace of mind and heart, sometimes for the rest of her life. Indeed, in every such case there are at least two victims, the baby and the woman herself. In many cases, the fathers of the baby aborted, the families involved, suffer terribly as well.
It is inevitably the woman, however, who is confronted most immediately and intimately with the terrible conflicts that can accompany a pregnancy and with the anguish of decision. We have no sympathy with the man who judges a woman’s dilemma glibly, or who detaches himself from the reality of the conflict and the suffering involved. Nor can we respect the man who walks callously away from his own obligations when confronted with a woman’s unplanned pregnancy. Such, of course, is not always the case. It can happen that the father of an unborn baby who is deliberately aborted can suffer deeply.
One of the most poignant stories I have ever read was by a former CBS correspondent. Writing in the Los Angeles Times in March of 1976, he describes his joy when his wife told him she was pregnant, and his shock and fury when she told him she had already talked with several friends, had a doctor’s name and intended to have an abortion. Shouting and pleading followed, with his wife insisting it was her body and should be her decision alone. Finally be drove her to the doctor’s office and waited in the car.
He tells the story 20 years later. Why? Because suddenly and unexpectedly he passed the corner of the doctor’s office, and it all came flooding back, and he found himself wondering over and over what might have been. By the time he arrived at his meeting, the tears were flowing and wouldn’t stop.
“Whatever sort of person the lost one might have been,” he writes, “I feel even now that we had no right to take his/her life.”
“Religion has nothing to do with my feelings. It is a gut response — still so strong that it overwhelmed me” some 20 years later.
Even now I find myself wondering about my first child that never was and I wonder, too, about others in my shoes. How many men share my haunted feelings about children who might have been, but were denied. Why are we, the fathers who never were, so reluctant to talk about such feelings? If it all so painful for us, how much worse must it be for the women who nurture and then give up the very fact of life itself?
A sad story? Of course it is, and there are countless stories like it. I know that your hearts go out, just as mine does, to all those whose lives have been so tragically touched. I do not repeat the story to reawaken bitter memories or to revive buried guilt. On the contrary, I believe as profoundly as I believe anything in this world, that God wants nothing more than to forgive whatever mistakes we have made, and pleads with us to let Him do so.
A Plea to the Medical Profession
But what of the future? Can we do more? Of course we can, all of us. And here I appeal particularly to you in the medical profession. I ask boldly that you help in at least three ways.
First, very simply, I ask you to think about the Hippocratic Oath. Ask yourself with absolute honesty what abortion really is. Test what is done to the unborn against the Hippocratic Oath many of you once took. You remember how it used to go: “I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner I will not give a pessary to a woman to produce an abortion.” And you know that the words about abortion are now so frequently omitted. Why? Why?
Secondly, teach us what we must learn about taking care of the whole person–the entire family, physically and emotionally. Teach us far, far more than we have been willing to learn to date about the critical importance of decent housing, of security in our streets, of the destructiveness of drugs. Teach us that good medicine requires that people need jobs, and meaningful jobs, to be able to hold their heads high, to feed, to clothe, to educate their children. Teach us that poverty is dangerous to our health, that malnutrition in mothers breeds disabilities in children. Plead for daycare centers, increased numbers of facilities for the handicapped. Raise your voices precisely as medical professionals to plead for a just social order indispensable to effective medicine. Teach that abortion is what it is, without pretense, but help bring about circumstances which will help a pregnant woman recognize that there is a better way for her than to have her own child destroyed.
Teach us above all, however, that you of the medical profession recognize the absolutely crucial role you play in regard to the entire issue of abortion. The overwhelming number of the 4,000 abortions carried out every day are carried out by members of the medical profession. What enormous power is yours, what leadership for life you could provide! Do you consider abortion your responsibility, whether or not you personally have ever been involved in or would be involved in an abortion? As the Holy Father reminded us recently when he spoke to a group of anesthesiologists, the responsibility extends to everyone in the medical field. For whatever my personal opinion is worth, I am convinced that the medical profession could change the entire picture of abortion in America and the world. Such is your influence, your prestige. Such is our dependence on you as nurturers and guardians of human life.
And thirdly, here is a request as direct as I can make it; if it’s needed to save the life of an unborn child, give your medical services without cost. I do not know how many abortions are performed free of charge, but I would like to believe that you and your colleagues would be willing to deliver live – and free of charge, where necessary – every baby that would otherwise be aborted. I am certain that many of you do this already, but I urge you to make it widely known that you want to go out of your way to help, at no cost to the pregnant girl or woman in need.
And I appeal to you, our hospital administrators, boards and staff to provide free of charge, when necessary, all the medical care required for both mother and child.
My appeal is extended to those in the legal profession, as well, to assist women and families without charge, when necessary, to learn what federal or state or city funding may be available to them, and to help them in adoption processes, should they choose this route.
The Commitment of the Archdiocese
I can assure all of you, as I appeal to you, and can assure every single or married woman facing an unplanned pregnancy, that the Archdiocese of New York will give you free, confidential help of highest quality. Here are just some of the services the Archdiocese will provide, whatever your religious affiliation. It makes no difference whether you are Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim or any other religion, or of no religion at all, or single or married–and your confidentiality will be completely respected.
You will get help with medical care and you do not have to worry about the bills. If you have medical insurance, you may be able to use this. If you choose adoption, the adopting family is responsible for your medical bills. If you wish to keep your baby, your social worker will help you get Medicaid. There is no fee for our services to you.
Our social workers will make arrangements to meet you close to your home. They travel widely throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. If you live in another state, we will help you get service from another agency or arrange for you to come to New York whenever possible.
If you cannot live at home during your pregnancy, other living arrangements can be made for you. The social worker we will provide you will suggest to you a variety of arrangements. You can choose the one best for you.
If you decide to keep your baby, your social worker will locate medical services, community resources, financial aid and support services to help you.
If you choose adoption, you will have a choice about the family with whom your baby is placed. Your social worker will give you profiles of approved couples on the waiting list. She will discuss these with you, but you make the selection. Let me say it simply and straightforwardly. The Archdiocese of New York is prepared to do everything in its power to help you and your unborn baby, to make absolutely certain that you need never feel that you must have an abortion.
A Plea to Those in Public Service
I have appealed to you members of the medical professions, to those of you in the legal profession and to those of you who may personally experience an unplanned pregnancy. May I now address all who hold or who seek public office, and ask this: Commit yourself unconditionally to a just social order for all–to decent housing, to jobs, to the end of all discrimination, to the ultimate ending of the arms race. Do these things not for political gain, but out of respect for all human life. I’ve heard it said that those who plead for protection for the unborn are obsessed with a single issue. But what is that issue other than life itself? No one in public life would dare admit to being a racist or a warmonger. But suppose someone did? Would we be accused of obsession with a single issue if we challenged that position? And is any value that is threatened anywhere greater than life itself?
Advocates for Change
Why, then, is it argued that questioning a candidate about abortion is somehow unfair or unethical? Must a candidate or in office holder explicitly support abortion? Of course no! He or she is free to tell the world: “I am not only personally opposed to abortion, but I intend to do everything I can within the law to bring about a change in the law. I do not believe that the right to privacy overrides the right to life of an unborn child.” There’s nothing constitutional about that. You have to uphold the law, the Constitution says. It does not say that you must agree with the law, or that you cannot work to change the law.
What do we ask of a candidate or someone already in office? Nothing more than this: a statement opposing abortion on demand, and a commitment to work for a modification of the permissive interpretations issued on the subject by the United States Supreme Court. It will simply not do to argue that “laws” won’t work, or that “we can’t legislate morality.” Nor will it do to argue, “I won’t impose my morality on others.” There is nothing personal or private in the morality that teaches that the taking of unborn life is wrong.
Abortion: Beyond Politics
And so I plead with you above all for the most innocent, those who have no voice of their own to cry out for your protection. Your personal belief is not an issue with me, nor are your politics. Whether you hold political office or aspire to such, whatever your party, my appeal is precisely the same. I speak to elect no candidate, to reject no candidate. There are critical needs in our society. All must be addressed on a continuing basis. None will go away overnight regardless of who holds public office, at whatever level. Some needs are so crucial that they require absolutely the best leadership this country can provide. It is neither my prerogative nor my desire to determine who those leaders are to be. But I am passionately convinced that no need is more crucial than to protect the rights of the unborn. I can but pray that those who are chosen to lead us will do everything possible to protect those rights, for such, in my judgment, is the indispensable step in protecting the rights of all who cannot protect themselves–and one day that can be any one of us.
In a speech last April at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, Speaker of the House Thomas P. O’Neill quoted the truly noble words of Senator Hubert Humphrey that could be read as an ominous warning as well: “The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and handicapped.”
Abortion and the Law
Since 1973 some of the finest scholars in the United States have argued that the Supreme Court decisions were not solidly based on the Constitution, and one Supreme Court Justice who dissented, from the majority called the abortion decision an act of “raw, judicial power.” In other words, the will of seven justices was imposed on an entire nation.
A Decree Against the Consensus
Given this reality, when charges are so loosely made that those who plead for a recovery of legal protection for the unborn are trying to impose their will on the majority, it is apparently forgotten that virtually every state in the union had some kind of protective law which was swept away by the Supreme Court. If we are going to argue that law must reflect a consensus, we must admit that there was a strong, national consensus against abortion on demand before the Supreme Court issued its decree that the unborn is “not a person whose life state law could legally protect.”
There are those who argue that we cannot legislate morality, and that the answer to abortion does not lie in the law. The reality is that we do legislate behavior every day. Our entire society is structured by law. We legislate against going through red lights, selling heroin, committing murder, burning down other peoples’ houses, stealing, child abuse, slavery and a thousand other acts that would deprive other people of their rights. And this is precisely the key: law is intended to protect us from one another of private and personal moral or religious beliefs. The law does not ask me if I personally believe stealing to be moral or immoral. The law does not ask me if my religion encourages me to burn down houses. As far as the law is concerned, the distinction between private and public morality is quite clear. Basically, when I violate other peoples’ rights, I am involved in a matter of public morality, subject to penalty under law.
Is it outlandish to think that laws against abortions might have some protective effect? It is obvious that law is not the entire answer to abortion. Nor is it the entire answer to theft, arson, child abuse, or shooting police officers. Everybody knows that. But who would suggest that we repeal the laws against such crimes because the laws are so often broken?
Teaching Function of Law
Of course we need far more education, and speaking in this high school auditorium I call upon our school administrators and teachers to carry out this responsibility. Of course we need far more love and respect and reverence for human life. Of course those churches that believe abortion to be sinful have the obligation to teach their adherents. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops testified before the Senate in 1981: “. . . we have no intention of asking the government to take over our own task of teaching moral principles and forming consciences.” The testimony went on to argue, however, that the law has a critical teaching function. On this basis, too, we would appeal to those in public life who could do so much to help achieve modifications in the current laws.
Every American is brought up, ideally, to respect the law. We know that some individual laws are good, some bad, some just, some unjust, but it’s the concept of law that we respect. We know laws are necessary because we are all weak human beings, and while we may chafe under laws that are personally inconvenient to us, we know we must have laws or have chaos. It is one of our proudest traditions that bad laws can be changed. There is no better example than the Slave Laws. And while many blacks still suffer in our country, and are still far from enjoying all the human and civil rights due them by both moral and civil law, the reality is that if the 1857 Supreme Court decision in the famous Dred Scott case had been allowed to stand, they would still be legally slaves, non-citizens, forever unable to become citizens. In 1857, it was not enough for people of good will to call slavery wrong; it was absolutely essential that they call the law wrong, and worked to change it.
Consequences of Abortion Mentality
We need only look at the mentality that has developed under current laws in recent years. An assistant district attorney argues in the case of the smothering of a newborn by her grandmother: “This is what you might call a two-minute abortion because the baby was unwanted.” A Nobel Prize winner has suggested that parents should be given a period of three days after the birth of a baby to determine whether the baby should live or die. Physicians are asked to determine by amniocentesis and other means the sex of the unborn so that an abortion can be performed if the sex is not acceptable to the parents. We hear of trafficking in fetuses which are sold nationally and internationally for commercial purposes such as the manufacture of cosmetics. The judicial trend since 1973 has even allowed a court’s ordering abortion for a mentally retarded or incompetent woman.
Why maintain laws against child abuse when abortion–the most violent form of child abuse in society–is protected as a right? Why have laws against racism when–as the ten black Roman Catholic bishops of the United States recently charged — liberal abortion policies amount to another form of subjugation of poor black people.
Deeply as we feel the pain of the individual, and aware as we are that many, many women have abortions because that seems to them their only choice, we cannot, we must not treat abortion as though it were a matter of concern only to an individual woman or man or family. We are already seeing cruel signs of what an abortion mentality can mean for all society.
Again we ask how safe will the retarded be, the handicapped, the aged, the wheelchaired, the incurably ill, when the so-called “quality of life” becomes the determinant of who is to live and who is to die? Who is to determine which life is “meaningful,” which life is not? Who is to have a right to the world’s resources, to food, to housing, to medical care? The prospects are frightening and far too realistic to be brushed aside as “scare tactics.”
Father Hesburgh of Notre Dame phrases the issue well. “It is difficult to explain how a moral America, so brilliantly successful in confronting racial injustice in the ’60s, has the most permissive abortion law of any Western country, recognizing virtually no protection for unborn human beings. . . .”
A Call for Change
So we must change the laws. This is one reason why I am encouraged by Governor Cuomo’s calling for a task force to “take our highest aspirations and most notable pronouncements about life and seek to convert them into working laws and policies.” I applaud such an objective vigorously as long as it, is indeed pointed toward changing the current laws, as long as we forthrightly recognize that a task force, can but recommend. We continue to look to our highest elected officials for leadership in bringing about those changes in current laws and policies so critically needed to protect every human life at every stage of its existence.
False Charges of Abortion Advocates: A Response
There is strong resistance by some to any change in the laws to make them less permissive or to reduce the possibility of “abortion-on-demand” (for that is the real issue). Some costly advertising campaigns are designed to discredit the “pro-life” movement.
Some pro-abortionists convey the impression that “masses” of women would die undergoing “back-alley” abortions if abortions were illegal. We are informed that this is not supported by figures issued by the United States Government before 1973 nor following the 1979 cutoff of Medicaid funds for abortion.
Certainly rape is always a frightening possibility and a crime to be abhorred in every way. It is understandable that many would feel that an abortion should be justifiable if a woman or a young girl becomes pregnant through rape. We in no way minimize the horror and trauma of rape. Obviously, whether we are speaking of a thousand cases or one case, a woman’s life, a family’s future, can be virtually destroyed. But as we have asked before, will violence against an unborn child compensate for the violence against the woman raped, or will it, in many cases, simply increase her suffering? Is it at least possible that bearing a child, however conceived, and either rearing it or offering it for adoption to the hundreds of thousands of couples pleading to adopt, might bring, even out of the tragedy or rape, a rich fulfillment?
Permit me to read you just one of the letters I have received from women who have been raped.
Twenty-two years ago I was raped. I had no home at this time. Some sisters took me in when I became ill.
I could not give my daughter what she needed when my own life was so hard, so I let her go (for adoption).
Sixteen years later – without even knowing her name I found my daughter. My daughter and I are close friends. She is now married.
I tell you all of this because no matter how life was conceived, we are to stand firm in being thankful for the gift of life no matter what tragedy is connected with it.
Yes, it was a horrible experience to be raped. Yes, it was I who felt like the bad person. Yes, there was worry if my child would be healthy. Yes, I had no idea how I could take care of my baby. Yes, I was ashamed to be seen – so young and not married.
Still, I suffered through this nightmare that deeply affected me rather than have an abortion because of my deep reverence for all living creatures created by God. I wasn’t a Catholic at the time and yet I knew what the truth was, and still is. I had taken, my child’s life before she was born, there wouldn’t be a daughter telling her friends that she is proud of me for being just me.
The charge that the “pro-life” movement considers abortion a political decision, rather than personal and medical, is equally misleading. Certainly the lives of its future citizens are of concern to the “body politic.” Appropriate political activity is both a right and duty for every citizen. It is precisely concern for the personal that prompts us to exercise our right and duty to use the political process to try to bring about legislation that protects the right of every person, including the unborn. This is a far cry from asking our politicians to tell us what is morally good for us. We have no more desire to see politicians determine what is moral and immoral than we have to see such abortion decisions forced upon medical doctors.
There is also the implication that the “pro-life” movement sees “birth control” and abortion as equal evils. These are, of course, grossly untrue. Abortion destroys life already conceived.
Again, while anything is possible, and therefore some groups or individuals somewhere may be attempting to have all contraception declared illegal, this is not the intention of the “pro-life” movement, whatever may be proposed by individuals within the movement. And it is certainly not an intention approved by the bishops.
Nor is the “pro-life” movement dedicated, as some critics imply, to a world without sex and the legitimate, joys it can bring to those who engage in sexual activity responsibly in marriage. The Church teaches very explicitly that married couples need not intend to conceive a child to enjoy the sexual relations of marriage, and those of our acquaintance in the “pro-life” movement share this belief. They see the sexual as beautiful, sacred, meaningful, joyous. They would add what some others might deny – that it must also and always be responsible.
Much of the argument of pro-abortionists is based on the assumption that the right to be born is dependent on being wanted. How many unplanned children have been born to parents whose attitudes changed completely to total acceptance and love? How many unwanted children have made enormous contributions to the world, as musicians, writers, doctors, entertainers, teachers, parents, or in other capacities?
But beyond such questions lies an even more basic one: Who can claim the right to be wanted? Does the Constitution guarantee such a right? Could the Congress legislate that babies are to be wanted by parents, or that a husband is to be wanted by his wife, a wife by her husband? When we speak of Equal Employment Opportunity we don’t argue that employers must personally want to hire given individuals. The law requires only that individuals not be refused employment because of a characteristic unrelated to the nature of the job, such as color. Is anyone arguing seriously today that an employee has a right to be wanted? Hardly. But certainly an employee has a right to life!
Is an unborn baby to be denied such a right? Is an unborn baby to be denied even the opportunity to have someone plead with a mother to let the baby live, wanted or not? Is the unwanted baby to be denied the opportunity given to millions of refugees who have been admitted into the United States?
Finally, we deeply regret any allegations that in arguing for the protection of the unborn, or in questioning the positions held by others, any of our bishops have encouraged violence in any form, or have invited attacks on property. First, such charges take the spotlight off the basic violence of the deaths of 4,000 unborn every day. Secondly, in any movement involving millions of people, the possibilities of reprehensible activity on the part of a minority–particularly a very small minority–are obvious. Such activity is to be abhorred. It has no place in a true “pro-life” movement. We reject it completely. Violence is not the answer to violence.
Responsibility of Catholic Bishops
I come finally to the questions that have been raised about the involvement of the bishops of the United States in the matters at hand and the allegations of undue intervention in the political process, including even the charge that in a programmed and conspiratorial fashion, the bishops, or some of us, are trying to destroy the so-called wall between Church and State; that the bishops are “perilously close” to threatening the tax-exempt status of their churches, or even more crudely, that the bishops are simply lusting for power.
Long and Consistent Tradition of Addressing Social Issues
What is actually going on? The bishops have been saying substantially the same thing about abortion for years. Likewise, for years the bishops have been challenging the state on a broad spectrum of laws and policies, economic, racial, social, military. Most recently the challenge was addressed to issues of war and peace, with the widely publicized formulation of the pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. While much was made in that letter of nuclear war, even more was made–and has been little noted–of the causes of war, injustice, oppression, economic and other forms of violence and exploitation and indignities against the human person. It was not by accident that the bishops included in that document on war and peace the following:
No society can live in peace with itself or with the world without a full awareness of the worth and dignity of every human person, and of the sacredness of all human life. When we accept violence in any form as commonplace, our sensitivities become dulled… Abortion in particular blunts a sense of the sacredness of all human life. In a society where the innocent unborn are killed wantonly, how can we expect people to feel righteous revulsion at the act or threat of killing noncombatants in war?…
What would those who criticize our speaking out during an election campaign have us do? Were those holding or seeking public office expressing explicit support for racism, for drug abuse, for pornography, for rape, for nuclear war, would we be expected to remain silent? Or would we be damned for doing so? Obviously, no one in or seeking office is calling for any of these. Are we to remain silent, then, on the question of abortion, if we are convinced that it is the taking of human life? Why would we be free to indict racism – indeed, be generally applauded for doing so – but damned for indicting abortion? Why would we not be “imposing our morality” on others if we opposed rape, but “imposing our morality” on others when we oppose abortion? What a strange democracy it would be that would encourage bishops to cry out their convictions as long as these were popular, but to remain mute when so ordered!
Welcome in the Marketplace: Right and Duty of Bishops to Speak
In his speech previously mentioned, Speaker O’Neill referred to the letter on national economic policy being drafted by the Catholic bishops of the United States, predicting that it will have “a dramatic impact on public debate in our country,” He cited critics who “say the Church should stay out of economic issues … argue that religious concerns have no place in the market place … that the only thing that matters in the business world is personal drive and ambition; that the only thing that matters in the affairs of man is force of arms,” and he replied: “I believe that we who share Christian values have a responsibility to put those values into action–whether those values are popular or not, whether they are fashionable or not, whether they are high in the polls or not.”
As one who argued strongly on Labor Day of this year that the bishops have a long tradition of addressing economic issues and the right and the obligation to do so, I am personally grateful to Speaker O’Neill for his statement and applauding efforts to put values into action, whether or not they are popular, fashionable or high in the polls. In the same address, he stated that “We must protect those people who cannot, protect themselves.” I must assume that the Speaker would want to include all people, certainly those least able to protect themselves, the unborn, and would want to welcome the bishops into today’s debate on this issue of critical public policy, as well.
I am grateful, too, for a letter from Governor Cuomo to the President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1983, in which he praised the bishops’ pastoral letter on war and peace. As a member of the committee of bishops that formulated the pastoral I am proud of the Governor’s words:
It would have been easy to compromise your position so as to offend no one. You chose instead to tend to your duties as shepherds, to teach the moral law as best you can. You can do no more.
Our Church has sometimes been accused of not having spoken out when it might have. Now you, our bishops, show the courage and moral judgment to meet this issue of nuclear holocaust with a collective expression of where the Church in America stands.
The pastoral letter on war and peace, of course, made much of a fundamental principle of moral law that we can never, under any circumstances for any reason, deliberately and intentionally attack the innocent. Since the pastoral explicitly referred both to innocent civilians who must be protected in war, and to the innocent unborn who must be protected in their mothers’ wombs, I must assume, also, that the governor would have intended to include our protection of the unborn in his praise of the pastoral letter. I know, of course, that the governor welcomes the bishops into the debate on the subject. He has said so, loudly and clearly.
My Obligation to Speak
I feel an obligation as a citizen to address issues of critical moral import whenever opportunity is given me to do so within the framework of our political system I have another obligation, however, that I can delegate to no one. The primary teacher of Catholic doctrine in any diocese is the bishop. As Archbishop of New York I have the responsibility of spelling out for our Catholic people with accuracy and clarity what the Church officially teaches about all human life, the life of the unborn, and abortion. I have simultaneously the obligation to try to dispel confusion about such teaching wherever it exists, however it has been generated, regardless of who may have generated it. It is easy to dismiss a bishop as narrow, rigid, ultraconservative, unfeeling, lacking in theological training or understanding, anti-feminist, or guilty of a thousand other alleged charges for presenting this teaching exactly as it is, rather than as some might like it to be.
But let no one be mistaken about the unanimity of this teaching on the part of the bishops. Those who would seek divisiveness between or among bishops do not understand the principles on which we stand. Those who would seem to suggest, for example, that the “consistent ethic of life” approach so well articulated by my good and valued friend, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Archbishop of Chicago, differs in what it has to say about abortion from what some others of us are saying, including myself, simply do not understand Cardinal Bernardin, or me, or our mutual unconditional commitment to the life of the unborn and to life at every stage of its existence.
Those who would try to derive comfort from the “consistent ethic of life” approach, by interpreting it to suggest that an office holder’s or a candidate’s position on abortion does not matter, so long as positions on other life issues are acceptable, miss the point of Cardinal Bernardin’s argument altogether. Indeed, they distort the very essence of his argument.
Teaching Clear and Unequivocal
So what does the Church really teach? Catholics the world over recognize the authority of the Second Vatican Council. Its teaching is as clear and unambiguous as anything could possibly be. “God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to human beings the noble mission of safeguarding life, and they must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.”
Pope Paul VI left no doubt. In his words: “To attack human life under any pretext whatsoever and under whatever form … is to repudiate one of the essential values of our civilization. In the very depths of our consciences–as each one of us experiences–we affirm as an incontestable and sacred principle respect for every form of human life, life that is awakening, life that asks only to develop, life that is drawing to a close; life especially that is weak, unprovided for, defenseless, at the mercy of others.”
The bishops of the United States have been equally clear and unequivocal. In 1970 they stated: “Our defense of human life is rooted in the biblical prohibition, ‘Thou shall not kill’… The life of the unborn child is a human life. The destruction of any human life is not a private matter, but the concern of every responsible citizen.”
Pope John Paul II has stated forcefully: “It is the task of the Church to reaffirm that abortion is death, it is the killing of an innocent creature. Consequently, the Church considers all legislation in favor of abortion as a very serious offense against primary human rights and the Divine Commandment, ‘You shall not kill.'”
The Declaration on Abortion issued by the, Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of the Faith and promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1974, declared: “It must be clearly understood that whatever may be laid down by civil law in this matter (of abortion), one can never obey a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law which would admit in principle the liceity of abortion. Nor can one take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it. Moreover, one may not collaborate in its application.”
Who Speaks for the Church?
So speaks the Church. What do I mean here by “the Church”? I mean what the average individual means when he or she asks: “What does the Catholic Church teach?” Such a question is not intended to ask what occasional theologians may speculate, or what any group of individuals who form organizations have to say, or what one finds in letters to the editor or on Op/Ed pages. Indeed, it is sometimes these speculations and accusations and claims that lead people to ask: “What does the Catholic Church really teach?”
It has ever been the belief of the Church and is no less so today, that we must turn to the bishops, the teachers of the Church, when we seek to discern the truths of our Faith. The Second Vatican Council stated it simply and clearly: “By virtue of the Holy Spirit who has been given to them, bishops have been constituted true and authentic teachers of the faith. . .”
‘Church teaching on abortion is quite clear, regardless of allegations that it has changed through the years. Speculations on such questions as when the soul enters the body have changed, as scientific knowledge has accrued. Church penalties for abortion have changed. The teaching about the grave immorality of abortion itself has never changed.
We hear a great deal about opinion polls and are frequently told that Catholics seem to approve of abortion in about the same percentages that other people do. There are several things wrong with such statements. Polling results depend in part on the knowledge of the persons polled; ignorance concerning the real nature of abortion and many of the so-called facts surrounding abortion is appalling. Unfortunately, some ignorance and confusion even seem to be provoked. The main issue, however, is that polling results depend primarily on the way the questions are asked. Who would be prepared to ask, for example, “Under what circumstances would you feet justified in putting your unborn baby to death?” The fact is, that in poll after poll, only 25 percent of those polled support abortion on demand. Much abortion advertising would have us believe that an overwhelming majority would favor it. Even were such the case, however, Catholic teaching on morality is simply not determined on the basis of polls.
I recognize the dilemma confronted by some Catholics in political life. I cannot resolve that dilemma for them. As I see it, their disagreement, if they do disagree, is not with me; it is with the teaching of the Catholic Church.
A Plea to Those of Good Will
I beg leave to add one further plea–that all women and men of good will try to open their minds and hearts to at least the possibility that we are unjustifiably taking 4,000 innocent human lives each day, regardless of whatever conclusions they may hold to the contrary. I plead for the understanding that it is not the national effort to protect the unborn that is divisive; it is the destruction of the unborn that is divisive. And I plead for honest and open dialogue toward the goal of saving human lives. As Father Hesburgh of Notre Dame has observed: tragically, in essence, we may never come again to an agreement in our land that all abortion should be declared illegal, and some may passionately believe that exception should be made in cases of rape, of incest, or truly grave threat to the actual physical survival of the mother. Whatever we may believe about such exceptions, however, we know that they constitute a fraction of the abortions taking place, so that at the very least we can come to grips with what is the real and the frightening issue of the day: abortion on demand.
The Power of Love
And so I come to the end of this long address this personal–pilgrimage, if you will–fearing I have said so little of what must yet be said, and that I have said virtually nothing of what, in the final analysis, alone makes everything understandable–the indispensable power of love. Before leaving a recent visit to Flower Hospital, now the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center, I told the director of the hospital that I really need not give a speech at all. I need but ask the world to visit that hospital, to see, not merely what doctors and nurses and staff are doing for their helpless patients, but what the helpless patients are doing for the doctors, the nurses and the staff.
The love those helpless ones generate in those who serve as their arms and legs and eyes and ears and tongues is more beautiful to behold than the most magnificent work of art in our own Metropolitan Museum. Except that such love is not a museum piece. It is vibrantly alive, pulsating through the corridors of that hospital and through the very being of those medical professionals and staff, women and men, literally giving their own lives every day, that the least of God’s little ones may not only live, but that in the depths of their beings, far removed from our sight and unfathomable by the most sophisticated techniques that science can devise, they, the helpless, may, in turn, love and teach us to love, who need so desperately to learn how.
And thus it can happen through the creative power of God’s own mysterious love for each one of us, of whatever color, or creed, or background, or sex, or personal beliefs–thus the miracle can happen in the strange design of that God who writes straight with crooked lines–that every child in this world, born or unborn, wanted or unwanted, with or without limbs or hearing or sight, nurtured lovingly, or horrifyingly battered, abused and neglected, becomes not only what Mother Teresa of Calcutta calls something beautiful for God, but someone extraordinarily beautiful for every one of us, their brothers and sisters in the Lord.