Life support: U.S. Catholic readers on what it means to be pro-life

By Mary Lynn Hendrickson| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Ethic of Life
The pro-life movement is hardly monolithic, those responding to U.S. Catholic's Reader Survey reveal, and that's a good thing. Activists, nurses, priests, and parents are all needed to create a culture of life.

Two things become immediately apparent whenever Catholics are tapped to discuss the role of faith in defending human life.

First: Most American Catholics support the sanctity of human life, all human life-"from womb to tomb," as the old saying goes. In a recent survey of U.S. Catholic readers and website visitors, a full 60 percent said that being pro-life means everything from opposing abortion and assisted suicide to alleviating poverty and injustice. A meager 3 percent said pro-life means opposing abortion only.

Second: "Religion and politics don't mix"-at least not very well whenever Catholics try to cast a vote consistent with their beliefs. Michael Goodboe of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida speaks for many, complaining that the pro-life movement is "based too much on politics," rather than values.

Others, like Jeanie Lewis of Chicago, dread "the screech factor" that becomes ever more deafening during the heat and hype of an election year. For 85 percent of respondents, confrontational rhetoric and tactics detract from the pro-life movement's message.

Whether they think that abortion should always be illegal (43 percent) or that the government shouldn't prohibit others from making that decision (40 percent), the survey respondents agree that abortion isn't just an issue up for discussion every four years. Being pro-life seems to be a way of life for all sides.

 In the year following a heated election season, the pro-life movement has struggled to find its place. Catholics remain an important group to the new administration, especially in the health care reform debate. For Catholics with a broad definition of pro-life, universal access to health care is an important goal, as long as abortions aren't being funded.

A vocal minority of Catholics protested President Barack Obama being honored at the University of Notre Dame, as well as Edward Kennedy's Catholic funeral, but most Catholics were supportive of both. The week after Kennedy's funeral also brought the surprise resignation of Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino, who had clashed with many for insisting Vice President Joe Biden, a Scranton hometown boy, and other pro-choice Catholics be barred from Communion.

Fifty-seven percent of survey respondents are proud of the U.S. bishops' vocal and uncompromising stand on the right to life of the unborn. Still, Bishops John M. Darcy and John R. Quinn recently pondered in America magazine what the bishops could have done differently about the Notre Dame controversy to facilitate a better dialogue among key Catholic decision makers. Catholics everywhere will want to note-if not also model-Quinn's suggestion that his fellow bishops adopt the "policy of cordiality" already so evident "in the example of the Holy See."

When it comes to bishops, one is particularly notable: Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was invoked repeatedly by our survey respondents. In the early 1980s, the now-deceased Chicago cardinal linked abortion to other assaults on vulnerable forms of human life. He won over a multitude of hearts and minds by pointing out Catholicism's inherent consistency on all life issues, which he likened to the "seamless garment" of Christ.

"There are so many pro-life issues going on right now," agrees a Colorado reader. "How can you separate one from all of them? Are unborn children any more precious than children who are already born and need education or health care? Are the people who pick your food and butcher your meat any less precious to God?"

Andover, Minnesota's Kim Jensen, however, takes issue with that view: "Catholics seem to think that all issues-pollution, immigration, war, torture, poverty, health care-are on an equal footing with abortion. But abortion is far more serious; the victims are the most innocent. We must battle all forms of social injustice, but right-to-life issues must take precedence. Without the right to live, no other right matters."

Father Bill Kenneally, who serves in Chicago, patiently points out, "Our Cardinal Bernardin tried to describe common ground on this issue," but "the American bishops were reluctant to follow his lead."

Reluctant, indeed. Perhaps that's one of the reasons 36 percent of readers doubt that common ground can ever be found between the pro-choice and pro-life camps-and why 35 percent believe abortion trumps all other pro-life causes. Abortion "is the bishops' only stand in most cases," laments a reader in Saginaw, Michigan. "Why are Catholic Church officials so quiet about wars or poverty?"

Angela Stockton of Clermont, Florida points to another black eye for the bishops: "I don't believe the bishops will ever appreciate how the pedophile scandals destroyed their credibility on any moral issue for large numbers of Americans."

One thing respondents agree on is that pro-life concerns are based in faith. "A totally consistent ethic of life is the heart-and-soul basis of Catholic Social Teaching," insists Joe Walker of East Grand Rapids, Michigan. "The creation story from the Book of Genesis teaches that all life ‘is very good.' God is the decider of life, and humans must respect that."

"My compass for life is God," says Jessica Lombardi of Norfolk, Virginia. "His commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill' states it perfectly; there are no but's in the commandments."

What's tricky, of course, is that in-vitro fertilization and hospital ventilators didn't make an appearance with Moses on Mount Sinai. Some of the lines between what is and isn't seen as a viable life have become blurred as new technologies have emerged. These tools tempt humans to play God, allowing us to produce human life outside the womb, prolong life, or pluck it away when we see fit.

Consider a more everyday example: artificial birth control. Readers such as Eileen Smith of Dearborn, Michigan include Natural Family Planning as part of "a heartfelt response to being pro-life and the marriage covenant." A slight majority of readers, however, believe the Catholic Church would be more credible in fighting abortion if it reconsidered its teaching on artificial methods.

"The church has painted itself into a corner on the birth control issue," says Spring Hill, Florida reader Keith Burbridge who, with his wife Rita, has fostered unwed mothers through Catholic Charities and adopted children born to moms who couldn't keep them.

From Rita's experience as a nurse, she's found that there are no easy answers: "When I worked in the emergency room, I cared for a few women who came-sometimes near death-as a result of botched illegal abortions. It was too late for one woman, whose death orphaned her other children. I have prayed for her and her family for 40 years. The women I saw were usually in desperate situations, and I sympathized with their miserable decision.

"Illegal abortions will resume if present law is changed. I can't stand the thought. But neither can I stand the thought of the millions aborted today. I believe that the answer is public policy that promotes contraception and keeps abortion from being used as contraception. Contraception is the lesser of two evils; thanks to modern science it is now safe and effective."

Education is key, the Burbridges and other Catholics who have worked in the trenches on pro-life issues agree.

Sometimes education needs to be aimed at the general public, as a reader from Appleton, Wisconsin attests: "I have seen little done to educate the public on the fact that this baby truly is a person. Ultrasounds are what educate many mothers. As a young nurse I baptized many babies after a mother's miscarriage, some as little as 2 inches. Who can say this isn't a person?"

Sometimes, though, the education is as simple as letting a frightened woman know she has alternatives. Illinois reader Alma Hermes knows this all too well. "I worked with Birthright for 14 years. Whenever I met with clients who were considered to be abortion-minded, I asked, ‘If I could solve all these problems for you, what would you really like to do?' " she says. "With only one exception in those 14 years, the answer was always, ‘Have the baby!' So then we set out to work on the problems."

My faith motivates me to be pro-life because . . .

I believe in the sanctity of life as created by God. Only God can take life away.

The dignity of human life is the core of our faith. Abortion should be unthinkable for Catholics.

Although my faith is obviously a very big part of my motivation, I believe that I would still be staunchly pro-life without it. I don't know how anyone could justify that it's OK to kill a child in the womb-the place where a child should be the safest.

All life is sacred-not just the life of the unborn.

Killing is wrong, period, especially the killing of innocents.

God created life, Jesus Christ saved life, and the Holy Spirit animates life.

I am not pro-life. Abortion is really between a woman, the person who fathered the baby, and their God. The church should actively show the many alternatives to abortion.

The most creative response I've seen to the abortion issue is . . .

"Thank you, Mom, for choosing life."

President Obama's "Nobody likes abortion" comment. Abortion came about because of Christianity's lack of response to the causes of abortion.

Asking "What if President Obama's mother had chosen abortion?"

Allowing desperate women to leave their newborn babies at hospitals rather than leaving them somewhere to die after birth.

Pictures of a fetus sucking its thumb.

Letting people know what really happens during an abortion.

Father Andrew Greeley said, "It is hard to convince people of your ‘pro-life' position if you are screaming ‘baby-killers' at them."

Humanae Vitae, which few of us have actually read and lived.

Accounts from women who are remorseful for having an abortion.

My 19-year-old college-freshman daughter placing her son in an open adoption, going on to finish college, and becoming a speaker about adoption options.

What bothers me the most about the usual pro-life/pro-choice dispute is . . .

That it hasn't accomplished anything!

Animal-rights activists seem to have more clout than those trying to educate people about the horrendous procedure of partial-birth abortion.

All the vitriol. Say rosaries quietly-not in the driveway of the clinic.

The lack of respect, especially the unwillingness to acknowledge the good intentions of opponents.

That "pro-choice" doesn't really equal "choice." It seems to equal abortion only.

There seems to be more concern over the unborn than the born of all ages.

I think denying Communion to a pro-choice politician is . . .

Counterproductive. We need to be working together to support all aspects of life, not sitting in judgment of politicians who have the duty to make tough calls.

Absolutely right. We need to take a stand. This is a most public slap in the church's face when these people are allowed to speak evil pro-choice words and receive Jesus in the same mouth!

A wonderful idea-as soon as the same treatment is insisted upon for bishops who shelter child molesters.

Indefensible. They need the grace of the sacrament. Christ never turns anyone away from his table of love. He didn't hesitate to eat with the sinners.

My personal efforts in the pro-life movement include . . .

Listening to women who have had an abortion and assuring them of God's unconditional love and forgiveness-and suggesting they claim, name, and pray for their baby.

Working for 25 years at a pro-life counseling center. These girls do not want abortions. They can see no other way.

Voicing my opinion against killing of any kind.

Supporting Planned Parenthood. They, unlike the "pro-lifers" I know, at least try in practical ways to prevent abortions.

Nothing. The radical fringe of the pro-life and pro-choice movements polarize me from taking a stand. Both groups need to find common ground and remove the radicals from their ranks.

Supporting Project Rachel and giving personal help when approached.

Belonging to Democrats for Life.

Taking part in the pro-life walks organized by our Knights of Columbus.

Raising my 2-year-old grandson.

General Comments

It's unbearable to listen to the impassioned oratory of old men and women, past child-bearing age, and priests and nuns who haven't a clue what it's like for young pregnant teens.

My youngest sister has moderate-level Down Syndrome and lives in a small group home. If anyone spent time with her or her seven housemates-if they could just see their zest for life-they would never support abortions.

I exist only because I wasn't aborted. I was given up by my mother in the hospital in which I was born. My childhood was unhappy, but I never condemned my mother. I'm grateful to her for giving me life; I have tried to make the best use of it.

All of life is sacred: the patients in the mental ward, the woman in jail, the migrant worker, the homeless man on the street, the elderly woman living alone-as well as the life of our enemies. It's not just about "saving babies."

In my view, the proper definition of pro-life is:
Opposing abortion only - 3%
Opposing abortion and embryonic stem cell research. - 8%
Opposting all direct killing (abortion, war, capital punishment, assisted suicide). - 15%  
Opposing all of the above, plus working for peace and social justice and alleviating poverty. - 60%
Other - 14%

Abortion is by far the most egregious evil in the U.S. today and needs to be singled out and condemned above all concerns:
Agree - 35%
Disagree - 32%
Other - 13%

The primary focus of the pro-life movement should be:
Personal: Change people's minds and hearts. - 45%
Policy: Promote social policy to reduce abortions. - 34%
Legal: Overturn Roe v Wade and make abortion illegal. - 21%

The Catholic Church would be more credible in fighting abortion if it reconsidered its teaching on artificial birth control:
Agree - 55%
Disagree - 38%
Other - 7%

It's possible to find common ground between the pro-choice and pro-life movements:
Agree - 53%
Disagree - 36%
Other - 11%

The confrontational rhetoric and tactics of some in the pro-life movement detract from its message.
Agree - 85%
Disagree - 11%
Other - 4%

I think abortion should be legal:
Never. - 43%
When the mother's health is in serious danger. - 27%
In the case of rape or incest. - 21%
When the mother is seriously mentally ill. - 12%
Up to fetal viability. - 11%
At any time in the pregnancy. - 4%

Although I am personally opposed to abortion, I don't think the government should prohibit others from making that decision.
Agree - 40%
Disagree - 48%
Other - 12%

I am proud of the U.S. bishops' vocal and uncompromising stand on the right to life of the unborn.
Agree - 57%
Disagree - 27%
Other - 16%

This article appeared in the November issue (Vol. 74, No. 11, pg. 18-22) of U.S. Catholic magazine.