Even as we concluded our parish’s month-long focus on the plight of migrants and refugees, we read news reports that New York has eliminated virtually all state restrictions on abortion. New York may have been anticipating a reversal of Roe v. Wade by the United States Supreme Court that would leave the regulation of abortion up to the States. Pope John Paul II got it right: we are living in a culture which routinely fails to recognize the dignity of human life, particularly those human lives that are least able to defend and otherwise provide for themselves—the very ones who need our care the most.
I have read a number of articles and op-ed pieces addressing the action of the New York legislators, and I recommend these to you. Two in particular recognize not just the evil of abortion, but also the evil of leaving women who are pregnant and feel alone, frightened, and unsupported to fend for themselves. Read Jesuit Fr. Sam Sawyer’s piece in the January 31 issue of America, “What New York’s New Abortion Law Does and Doesn’t Do.” Sam writes: “Both I and America magazine are strongly pro-life and not on the sidelines of this argument. However, it is worth trying to get to a more even-handed account of what the law does and does not do in order to have a clearer conversation about it, even if we do not expect to fully convince people on the other side.” You can find Sam’s piece online.
In that same issue of America, the editors write, “The Tragedy of Abortion Absolutism and How the Pro-life Movement Can Respond.” You can find it online. The editors urge pro-life advocates to work not only to defeat legislative initiatives like the one in New York, but also to work for reforms that will make it easier for expectant parents to choose to bring their children into the world. The editors insist that this call to assist and support women facing difficult pregnancies is not a retreat from the effort to protect unborn children in law, rather “it is a recognition that pro-lifers should be willing to use every practical means to support and defend the dignity of life.”
In taking this approach, Fr. Sam and America’s editors are following the Church’s lead in understanding the notion of “pro-life” broadly, that is, as a complex of issues in which the life and dignity of human persons—in this particular case, unborn children and pregnant mothers alike—are at stake. The Church’s social teaching, founded on the inviolable dignity of each human life at every stage of his or her development, demands such a broad approach. The bishops at the Second Vatican Council declared: “Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are criminal. Indeed, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator.” The Church in the Modern World (1965), #27.
U.S. Cardinal Joseph Bernadin popularized this broad understanding when he spoke of “a seamless garment of life.” It was his way of saying that no life is more deserving of our care and our protection than any other.
To be sure, Pope John Paul II in the 1990s arguably gave priority to the fight against abortion and euthanasia. See, e.g., The Gospel of Life (1995). However, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis seem to have returned to the earlier, more comprehensive understanding of “pro-life.” For instance, Pope Francis has written unequivocally that the Gospel of Jesus demands the defense of the unborn and the poor: “Our defense of the innocent unborn … needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.” Rejoice and Be Glad (2018), #101.
STM has adopted this broad understanding of “pro-life.” Although the STM Social Justice Committee has recommended—and I have agreed—that STM’s “pro-life” program this year focus on advocacy for and the care of migrants and refugees, we by no means suggest that other life issues, including abortion, are unimportant. We simply believe that focus is necessary lest we become scattered and lose all impact.
I encourage individual parishioners to seek justice in those areas that incite their special passion, but let us also work together as parish on those issues that we have chosen to make our own.