John J. Conley

Pro-life activists of a certain age remember Jan. 22, 1973, with photographic precision.

Then an undergraduate at Penn, I was typing an article on organic farming in the offices of The Pennsylvania Voice, the alternative newspaper. The Supreme Court had just delivered the decision in the Roe v. Wade case that instituted a regime of virtual abortion-on-demand. A fellow editor argued that since the decision had been made by the margin of seven to two, we just had to accept it: “The abortion debate is over.” Another editor kindly pointed out that I strongly opposed abortion and that it must be a difficult day for me.

I was in fact a recent convert to the cause. I had started my college years on a pro-choice syllogism: 1) My religion opposes abortion; 2) I personally oppose abortion; 3) I don’t want to impose my religion on others; 4) Therefore, abortion should be legal. My syllogism soon collapsed. A lecture by an agnostic biologist on fetal development convinced me that the humanity of the nascent child was not a matter of sectarian doctrine. A symposium on logic indicated that by my own pro-choice logic, I would have to become an anarchist, since there was virtually no civil law not opposed by someone on the basis of religious conviction.

But there were also Pascalian reasons of the heart. During my collegiate summers I worked as a counselor at a day camp for people with mental disabilities. My solidarity with them instinctively made me a defender of their lives. Then as now, campaigns in favor of abortion, infanticide and euthanasia viewed the disabled as targets of choice.

Forty years later, the shock of Roe v. Wade remains. Its blanket dismissal of the claims to legal protection for human beings on the eve of birth still scalds. But Roe did not and could not have the last word.

As the pro-life movement continues its resistance, the case against abortion has become stronger than ever. The omnipresent sonogram has graphically advanced it. Expectant couples decorate their refrigerator doors with the latest snapshot of Emma’s or Ethan’s adventures in the womb.

Recently, an English couple planning an abortion because of fetal disability changed their mind when they saw their child “smiling” in a sonogram. It has become increasingly difficult for us to recognize the humanity—indeed, the complex personality—of the child in the womb and then claim to be agnostic about when human life commences.

If abortion remains the central issue, the landscape of our battle has changed over four decades. Euthanasia and infanticide are no longer distant threats. In Belgium recently, a doctor euthanized two deaf brothers who feared that they would become blind. There was neither intractable pain nor terminal disease. In the tony Journal of Medical Ethics, two ethicists recently coined a new euphemism for infanticide: “post-birth abortion.” And they’re for it. As always, it is the disabled who perish as the goalposts of personhood are shoved further away.

The pro-life movement has become intertwined with the effort to defend the rights of conscience. It is no accident that our bishops’ noble campaign to defend religious liberty is very much a crusade to oppose legal efforts to force health care workers to participate in abortions, nursing homes to facilitate physician-assisted suicide, pharmacists to distribute abortifacients and employers to finance the destruction of human life and of the very capacity to give life. Decades ago, the campaign to legalize abortion and euthanasia appealed to privacy. But it has since become an effort to make every citizen an accomplice in the culture of death under the rubric of access.

For those of us called into the pro-life movement, the defense of the right to life of the innocent can never become just one cause among others. It is the great cause, as compelling as our ancestors’ struggle against slavery or on behalf of labor. As our bishops have reminded us, the struggle to protect the lives of the vulnerable at the dawn and dusk of existence is the pre-eminent civil rights issue of our age. When the right to life recedes, the entire edifice of human rights buckles.

As we turn 40, we will not be silent. We cannot be. The great cause still beckons.

John J. Conley, S.J., is the Knott Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Loyola University Maryland.

Comments

Michael Casey | 2/25/2013 - 10:31am

Unfortunately the term "culture of death" misleads on this critical issue. People don't have abortions (usually) because they love death or want more dead people. They have them (usually)for their own quality of life, i.e. financial, personal, physical. Unplanned or unwanted pregnancies can seem too much to bear for some people; either their lives or that of the baby will be miserable if they go through with the birth. Be sure, I'm not defending these decisions, but to heap them under "culture of death" puts a silly straw man in where real complex, agonizing decision-making is happening.
To decrease abortions it might be better to single out the issue, i.e. stop connecting it to gay marriage, contraception, violent video games, whatever. Abortion is its own awful issue, not part of some inexorable slide into "death culture" or "tyranny of secularism", whatever that means. It should be distinct from other, lesser concerns, or things (like gay marriage) that really don't harm anyone. I foresee a future where abortion is not legal (or greatly limited) while contraception is available to all and gay marriage is celebrated in every state.

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 2/21/2013 - 3:10pm

We have high school kids killing themselves as never before. I heard of one case in a Southern school where ten kids died in one year, of self-inflicted wounds! We have crazy and or morally depraved adults killing children, killings, killings, killings, all kinds of killings, in the home children killing parents, parents killing children, young people killing each other on our streets. Young people seeing no reason to live, hopeless and suicidal, bullied not only by peers, but also by a society that says killing is O.K. even legal, as in wars and rumors of wars, also in hospitals, where the killing of the handicapped, terminally and not so terminally ill opt for physician-assisted suicide, sometimes not even requested. Also in an horrendous bloodbath, the not-yet-born too, more than 40 million in the past 40 years destroyed like one would swat a fly, ending up as surgical trash in garbage cans, the only cradles they’ll ever know, then like infectious garbage incinerated by hospitals!

How did the United States ever come to this? How has life become so cheapened by what is accurately called, the “Culture of Death?” I think that its seed was subliminally planted in January of 1973 when killing in utero was legalized by the Supreme Court. Its message was, “Life is cheap and if ‘inconvenient’ just get rid of it!” Young people and others, the mentally ill and the mentally competent have gotten the message and so, when the human life even from its very beginning “gets in the way” including self, kill it!” And so, proverbially, “the chickens have come home to roost!”

Another factor that plays into the “Culture of Death” is the moral darkening of humanity’s understanding of right and wrong from start to finish. Whatever happened to personal accountability, to sin? Everything is deemed O.K.! The tyranny of relativism has wrapped its strangling tentacles around our Nation nourished by medical, legal, educational and media elites, “people in high places” as scripture says, some unwitting emissaries of Evil. God has been relegated to obscurity in schools and in public life and Christianity is made to look buffoonish transfusing into personal reality the words of Cardinal Danieleux, “With great ease I am pagan and with great difficulty Christian! ”Yes, nowadays there’s a reek of a new paganism through the land, making Christian life difficult for many.

This “An Unwelcome Anniversary” society’s requiem to which we are march!ng. Unbearably simplistic? Respectfully, if so I'm sorry, but that’s the way I see it!

Michael Kent | 2/19/2013 - 5:29pm

There is absolutely nothing shocking about the Supreme's Court decision in Roe v. Wade. The Roe Court treated the Constitution exactly how the modern Jesuits want to it be treated: as an infinitely malleable document that can be made to mean whatever the power elites of the day want/need it to mean. Hence, the "right" to terminate a pregnancy was incanted out the "shadow emanating from the penumbra" of an unstated constitutional right to privacy. And, while we're at it, out with the anachronistic Second Amendment as well!

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