Today’s 46th March for Life in Washington is not a Catholic thing. It’s been gratifying over the years to see the growing numbers of Evangelicals, mainstream Protestants, Jews – you gotta love the blowing of the shofar from the stage just before marchers set out – Mormons, Muslims, and others. All of whom have come to realize that killing the smallest and most vulnerable of our human kind is not humane, and no favor to women, tens of millions of whom are targeted around the world while still in the womb for the mere fact of being female.
But the March – and the pro-life cause – are not even, strictly speaking, religious things. Seeing “Atheists for Life” walking around the National Mall always boosts your spirits, but it’s also a sharp reminder. We do not oppose abortion because it bumps up against some religious dogma. If that were the case – as defenders of abortion often, and wrongly, claim – it would be difficult in pluralistic modern democracies like ours to avoid the false charge that we’re trying to “impose our religion” on others. To the contrary, we’re trying to keep people from practicing an unreasonable, false, and murderous form of idolatry.
Because it’s reason, not revelation, that tells us that – if we believe killing is wrong – then killing children in the womb is wrong. And with each year, the scientific support for that moral stand becomes ever clearer. When Roe v. Wade came down in 1973, we had nothing like the medical evidence we have today. We now know, for example, that a child’s heart begins to beat about four weeks after conception – and much else is going on that makes it clear that this growing, living thing is human (with its own unique DNA) and from the start male or female. It’s simply rational to say: Whoever would end that life, even in its earliest development, is making a grave moral mistake.
And we are perfectly right both to argue, rationally, and march for an end to abortion. In fact, it’s a moral obligation. Engaging one another in the pursuit of truth is one way we demonstrate our conviction that those we disagree with are, like ourselves, rational beings. I know – it’s asking a lot of reason when so many passions and interests are involved. That’s why marches, demonstrations, personal example often must also be in play just to get a hearing for the science and those quite good arguments.
About ten years after Roe, I was talking with a now world-famous philosopher about abortion. He predicted that, though the science and moral reasoning would make it ever clearer what we are doing in aborting our children, none of it would matter: “The day will come when they’ll have to admit the truth. And they’ll say, Yeah, it’s killing a baby, but so what?”
I was skeptical at the time; not anymore. We’ve now had years of changing the subject from the moral status of life in the womb to everything from respect for women to freedom from religious prejudice to combating poverty and environmental damage. And we’ve even seen the argument that, yes, it’s a hard choice – hard why? Perhaps because there’s a baby involved? – but women must still have that right. In a moment of moral passion, Pope Francis got it exactly right: getting an abortion is like “hiring a hit man” to solve your problems. And the world calls in that hit man a lot: 42 million times around the globe last year according to one estimate, making abortion the world’s leading cause of death.
American Catholics have played a central and honorable role, of course, in keeping the pro-life cause alive and kicking. And it’s no surprise that others who believe in truth as the thing that will set you free have joined with us. And not only on these shores. Our example has sparked similar efforts in several countries and, recently, in Rome itself, though the Church in Italy and the Vatican have kept their distance, for what seem very bad political reasons, from the Marcia per la vita.
Since the second wave of the abuse crisis, the bishops in America and by implication the Church as a whole have been hit by some harsh criticism, some undeserved, most deserved. All that has damaged the force of our public witness on many fronts. In the past few days, Washington’s Cardinal Wuerl even had to abandon plans to offer the pro-life Mass this morning. Papal Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre will replace him. But we Americans can handle more than one problem at a time. Ultimately, we’ll clean up the abuse crisis even as we continue our pro-life and pro-family witness.
The struggle will not be easy. It took almost a hundred years – and a Civil War – from John Wesley’s first writing against slavery until the Emancipation Proclamation. It may take as long or longer to reverse Roe and change cultural attitudes towards abortion. But however long that may take, when we move on to better days, people will look back at this dark time and wonder how a free people enjoying the greatest prosperity the world has ever known allowed their advantages to blind them to the massacre of the innocents.
Many have criticized the Church and other Christian bodies for their failure to combat slavery during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And that remains a blot on the record of many followers of Christ who knew better.
But on the happy day when abortion is once again seen as the moral horror that it is, people will also see that it was primarily the Church, despite sharp criticism and when almost no one else would, that defended the sacredness of all human life. Something to celebrate, when so much else seems in doubt.