“Those of us who support legal protection for the unborn are dismissed as idealists…”

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By Carl Olson on Thursday, May 21, 2009

“Those of us who support legal protection for the unborn are dismissed as idealists who ignore the lived experience of flesh-and-blood people in our pursuit of principle. It is now argued that the Supreme Court’s abortion decisions must be accepted regardless of their invalidity, simply because they have been in place long enough to become a basis for later legal developments.”

That from a well-known and controversial Cardinal, the former Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, in this 1988 statement. How ironic, and sad, that the argument rebutted by the Cardinal is still being used by so many, including some Catholics, who insist that attempting to overturn “Roe v. Wade” is not only improbable, but surely a waste of time.

And then there is this, from a statement made by Cardinal Bernardin before the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights of the House Committee on the Judiciary on March 24, 1976 (ht: Mirror of Justice blog):

I begin with a fundamental principle. Abortion is not wrong simply because the Catholic Church or any church says it is wrong. Abortion is wrong in and of itself. The obligation to safeguard human life arises not from religious or sectarian doctrine, but from universal moral imperatives concerning human dignity, the right to life, and the responsibility of government to protect basic human rights. Commitment to a constitutional amendment to protect unborn human life arises from these same basic principles. It is certainly true that the Catholic Church and many other Churches teach that abortion is wrong–just as they teach that racial discrimination is wrong, that exploitation of the poor is wrong, that all injustice and injury to others are wrong. So in my case and that of many other religious persons, religious doctrine powerfully reinforces our commitment to human rights. We are publicly committed on a broad range of domestic and international issues. Within the past week alone, Catholic bishops, continuing a practice of many years’ standing, have testified before committees of Congress on full employment and on food stamps. No objections are raised when we give voice to our moral convictions on such matters as these–and that is as it should be. For it is not religious doctrine which we wish to see enacted into law; it is respect for human dignity and human rights–specifically, in this case, the right to life itself.

Human dignity and the right to life are proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as well as by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. These are not sectarian principles. They are fundamental principles upon which our nation, and indeed any civilized human community, is based. Catholics, as well as other Christians and Jews, believe that human dignity derives from God’s creation of each individual. Humanists and many people of no particular religious persuasion see human dignity as based on the inherent value of the individual. This has resulted in a common tradition long enshrined in law and articulated in the affirmation of the Declaration of Independence that all persons are created equal and that among the “unalienable rights” of one who is human is the right to life. For some citizens, religious belief is a motive for commitment to such principles; for others, it is not. Whether it is or is not, I assume, is a question which has no bearing on the merits of efforts to secure legislation or other governmental protection for human dignity and the right to life.

In other words, not being a Catholic—or not being a Christian of any sort—is never, Bernardin argued, an excuse for failing to recognize the murderous nature of abortion. “Abortion is wrong in and of itself.” Period. Not because this or that bishop, pope, preacher, teacher, or church said so (and, conversely, abortion still is wrong in and of itself even if a preacher, teacher, president, or anyone else says it isn’t wrong or evil).

Notice this next paragraph, which is quite striking, especially in light of the popular but dubious theory that “reducing” poverty with equal “fewer” abortions:

Our country now faces a startling and terrifying fact. With the approval of the law–indeed, with the sanction of the nation’s highest court–one million human lives are destroyed each year by abortion in the United States. Considerations of health or economic distress cannot account for this appalling situation. The plain fact is that many–probably most–of these million lives are destroyed because others find it convenient to destroy them. By the hundreds of thousands each year we are killing the unborn for convenience’s sake.

In its 1973 abortion decisions the Supreme Court’s majority alleged that it was not deciding when human life begins. As a practical matter, the court did decide. Its decision was that human life begins at birth, and that before birth the law can provide virtually no protection to the unborn.

Cardinal Bernardin’s comment about “the lived experience of flesh-and-blood people” brought something related to mind about the canard (which I’ve addressed recently a couple of times) that many pro-lifers are “one issue” people, or don’t spend the correct amount of time and energy addressing matters such as the death penalty, war, and so forth. Part (but not all) of the issue here, I am convinced, is that matter of lived experience.

Let’s put it this way: I don’t anyone personally who has been tortured or who tortures others, nor do I know anyone who works as an executioner on death row, nor do I know (to the best of my knowledge) any doctors who have been involved in an “assisted suicide”. But I have known and have met many women who have had abortions and men who have pushed their pregnant girlfriends to have abortions. My first experience was in eighth grade, when the most attractive girl in my class suddenly stopped coming to school (a small school, in a tiny town), and then disappeared from town for a while. I was later learned that she had been pregnant, and was sent away by her family to have an abortion. That was mind-boggling to me. In college I knew a girl who made several attempts to commit suicide because she couldn’t cope with the guilt of having an abortion a few years earlier. And so forth and so on.

I think this is one reason (among several) there is a more overt and obvious passion about the issue of abortion among many pro-lifers; it is why so many of them help out at pregnancy centers, adopt children, and do a hundred other things, big and small, to help the unborn and the newborn (and the “born a while ago”). Now, I’ve had several passionate conversations with good Catholic friends about war, but they have tended to be a bit abstract and detached in nature. That would surely be different, I know, if a soldier or the parent of a soldier serving in the Middle East (or elsewhere, for that matter) had been part of those conversations. But abortion, it’s safe to say, has directly touched the lives of nearly everyone.

Increasingly, especially here in the Northwest, euthanasia/”assisted suicide” is starting to have a similar sort of expansive reach, one that will, I think, eventually become pervasive. People under the age of thiry-seven realize, if they stop to ponder it for a moment, that they could have been legally aborted; and some people older than thirty-seven recognize that they, down the road, might well be euthanized, perhaps even without their permission or directive. The effect of this growing realization is surely a profound and disturbing one; it raises all sorts of doubts and fears, it trivializes life, and furthers the sense that life is about getting what I can for myself while I can, and then making a quick exit.

Posted by Carl Olson on Thursday, May 21, 2009 at 09:09 PM


From Carl Olson’s blog on Ignatius Insight E-Newsletter of May 26, 2009.   Used with permission. For your own subscription, go to www.ignatiusinsight.com

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