by Most Rev. James T. McHugh
January 22, 1999
On January 22 the pro-life movment again gathered to commemorate the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decisions (Rev. v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton) that legalized abortion in the United States. The focal point of the day was the March for Life in Washington, D.C. Each year on that date, tens of thousands of people march down Constitution Avenue from the White House to the U.S. Supreme Court. The evening before, more than 5,000 attend Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception; hundreds stay all night to pray; and in the morning, thousands more assemble for Mass at the Shrine and downtown churches. This is year 26; abortion advocates are amazed that pro-lifers have continued their effort with such determination and enthusiasm over the past quarter-century.
Yet abortion on request remains the law of the land. Reports indicate that the annual number of abortions has decreased, that more doctors are refusing to do abortions, and that small gains in the courts are limiting the so-called abortion "freedom." But still we face the destruction of over 1.2 million unborn children each year. We still face an on going struggle to prohibit even partial-birth abortion, in which an infant is killed in the process of birth. And we still face an Administration in which those at the highest levels--President Clinton and Vice- President Gore--remain resolute and determined to promote abortion at any state of pregnancy, without any restriction or reasonable explanation.
Last November the Catholic bishops issued an important statement: Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics. Focused on the American scene, it reminds us that "the United States has thrived because, at its best, it embodies a commitment to human freedom, human rights and human dignity." But this commitment is overshadowed by a gradual restructuring of American culture according to ideas of utility, productivity and cost-effectiveness. We are creating a culture where every scientific or technological discovery is immediately accepted, while moral or ethical questions are submerged or ignored. During this past year alone we have seen the cloning of animals, and experiments with human cells that are supposed to lead to the creation of human beings in laboratories. Such experiments are promoted as promising techniques that may lead to the treatment of some diseases, though there is no assurance and little evidence that they are needed for such purposes. Simultaneously, Jack Kevorkian continues his euthanasia crusade. He most recently dramatized his campaign to kill those who are sick, elderly, disadvantaged or victims of depression, by administering a lethal injection to a man, video taping the death, and then arranging to have the tape shown on nationwide TV.
Such events, almost commonplace today, motivated the bishops to "call our fellow citizens back to our country's founding principles and most especially to renew our national respect for the rights of those who are unborn, weak, disabled or mentally ill."
Living the Gospel of Life calls on all citizens, and especially Catholics, to promote fundamental human rights--the right to food, to healthcare, to family life, to religious freedom-- rights that respect human dignity and promote the common good. It also reminds us that a nation committed to safeguarding and enhancing human life should not resort to the death penalty to punish criminals or satisfy a need for revenge. But respect for human life first of all demands that the lives of innocent human beings be protected--or concern about human rights becomes an empty platitude.
The most important section of Living the Gospel of Life is addressed to Catholics in government. The bishops recognize that bringing a respect for human dignity to practical politics can be a daunting task. They assert that any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing and healthcare and oppose the violence of war and capital punishment. "But being 'right' in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life," the bishops remind us. Catholics in leadership positions have great opportunities and great responsibilities. They are called to place their faith at the heart of their public service. Some will be applauded. Some will suffer for living their principles. Others will try to equivocate. But the bishops, concerned primarily about their spiritual welfare and their responsibility to avoid giving scandal, state clearly that "no public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibily advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life." Nor does the message stop with politicians. "The arena for moral responsibiity," says the bishops, "includes not only the halls of government, but the voting booth as well." We are all accountable to God for our actions.
Living the Gospel of Life is not, and will not be an easy task. As Catholic Christians we are called to build a culture of life, to restore protection for the unborn, the elderly, the sick and the disadvantaged. We are always called to love one another as God has loved us--fully, unquestioningly, at great sacrifice. We are called to enjoy, and to ensure for others, the fullness of life.
Bishop James McHugh is the Bishop of Camden, and a member of the NCCB Committee for Pro-Life Activities.