Mother’s Day in Massachusetts

Dropping in by air to a familiar, strange place:  I’ve been in Washington this spring, working on our new Center for the Jurisprudence of Natural Law.  But I had to make two quick, separate trips back to Massachusetts, home ground for over forty-five years, though increasingly alien, at least in those academic enclaves in which I live.  When landing anew in Amherst or Cambridge, my inclination is to go looking for an American consulate, some connection with the real America.

But these two trips were bringing me back into another circle of friends, wholesomely detached from the culture of the campuses.  They are the folks who have sustained the pro-life movement in the state even in the face of a political class less and less supportive, and a political climate quite hostile.  Still they persist.  They reckon their victories in retail:  they save lives in counseling, or in their presence outside of clinics, or in their resistance to legislation that would make things worse.

The pro-lifers come with names like Szetela, Moriarity, Pitoniak, Moran, Butler, Reilly, Fox, Allen.  They have formed for me almost an alternative universe, with people grounded in the world, delivered from the theories that allow people in the academy to brush out, in a clever stroke, the human lives that just don’t count for them.

I flew in to Boston to see the pro-life lawyers give the Thomas More Award to Philip Moran, who founded the group about sixteen years ago.  He has kept up his practice in defending pro-lifers running up against the law as they sought to plea for the lives of the unborn.

About a week later I flew back to exotic Agawam in order to introduce Robert George of Princeton for the annual gathering of Massachusetts Citizens for Life in Western Massachusetts.  At the dinner, we saw the main award given to Don Golden, a high school teacher who has taken up vigils outside abortion clinics, and with love rather than censure moved women to carry their babies to birth.

Robby George remarked to me, on the side, that these people really are “the salt of earth” and so different from most of the people who surround us at Princeton and Amherst.

The Thomas More Award to Phil Moran sparked the recall of that observation of More’s: That it is one thing to preserve a good character when that goodness is supported by conventions and sustained in the laws.  The real test is whether a man can preserve his character when virtues are no longer sustained in the laws and vices are everywhere celebrated.

          Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527

For the pro-lifers in Massachusetts, that test becomes harder every year.  The run back to Massachusetts finds our friends in a battle against a proposal put on the ballot for “doctor-assisted suicide”.  The measure springs from the same state of mind, and many of the same groups, that have brought forth this policy in Oregon and other states.  On all of this we may have more to say later.

But what is it that animates the people who keep bringing forth these schemes?  Why this passion for death?  The telling line is “control” – to have control over one’s life and the way it ends.  And the concept with philosophic pretension is “autonomy,” the condition of giving the law to oneself.

But this is not autonomy as “free will” or even autonomy as Immanuel Kant had it.  Free will still implied standards for choosing one’s path of action, with the possibility of those choices being morally judged.  For Kant, autonomy took its place in a moral world, with the understanding that the autonomous actor had the freedom to make his way to the principles that rightly claimed to govern his acts.

But what lies behind the drive for abortion and assisted suicide seems to be a passion for “autonomy” in the sense of being liberated from the very principles of moral judgment, the principles that come into play in – gasp – casting judgments, especially on the way people lead their sexual lives.

And the main center for preserving that lingering notion of moral truths has been of course, the Church.  We should not discount, as part of the animating force here, the passion to strike at the Church and all that it represents.

But the dinner in Massachusetts was for Mother’s Day.  And if there were a vote in Massachusetts for Mother of the Year, the vote could plausibly go to that graduate of Mt. Holyoke College and sister of Donald Trump, that redoubtable federal judge Maryanne Trump Barry.

Judge Barry distinguished herself years ago by the way she struck down the law on partial-birth abortion in New Jersey.  The judge was offended by the claim to bar an abortion at the point of “birth.”  This was all, she said,  “semantic machinations, irrational line drawing, and an obvious attempt to inflame public opinion.”  Judge Barry insisted that the fetus was not “in the process of being born at the time of its demise. . . .A woman seeking an abortion is plainly not seeking to give birth.”

The woman had decided not to become a mother.  Therefore, there was nothing to be born, no pregnancy, no child.  But the pro-lifers back in Massachusetts are not in the thrall of such theoretical cleverness. They continue to live in a world of truths that cannot be effaced.


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.