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Pro-Life Conference Keynote Address

Omni Shoreham, Washington, D.C.

Good morning. This is the first opportunity I have had to take part in your annual conference since becoming Chairman of the Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee. I am truly delighted to be here with you, and I bring with me the prayers and good wishes of all who serve on the Committee.

I must tell you: I am also somewhat awed to stand before you precisely because of what you do so well, day in and day out. Sixteen years ago, and I remember it as though it were yesterday, a reporter at a press conference asked me to say why I thought it important to make a public pro-life statement. He referred to some polls that said that Catholics seemed to be following the general population in attitudes toward abortion. I responded that much depended on how the question was put: if the question were asked, What do you think of taking the life of the unborn? Then the response would be unmistakably pro-life. But there was an additional factor: if even one expectant mother could be helped by our statement, and a report of it in the media, to realize that another heart was beating beneath her own, that another life was at stake in an abortion. And then, if she acted on her realization, the statement would have been more than worth the while. Suddenly I saw tears running down the face of the reporter. In your work you are touching hearts and lives in ways you cannot see now. You may not see the tears your words provoke, but the recording angel is keeping track of what you do so effectively, and I thank you for the ways in which, heart and soul, you act to bring the gospel of life to others.

All I can say to that is: what you are doing, and how you are doing it--don’t stop now. Keep up the wonderful work!

Some may say we are powerful. What do we think? Do we feel powerful? Hopeful? Challenged? Tired? Frustrated? Maybe all of the above?

We are keenly aware of the past three decades’ hard work. Nonetheless, what we see is the long road that looms ahead. Some days we ask ourselves: Will our nation see an end to abortion? Will the lives of all, born and unborn, ever again be protected in law and nurtured in life? Will our nation reject euthanasia and assisted suicide and instead provide care and compassion for all those who are sick or dying or otherwise vulnerable? Will our country ever recognize that killing those who have killed is no way to show that killing is wrong? Will what John Paul II calls the "culture of death" that surrounds us be replaced by a "culture of life?"

The answer to those questions, I believe very strongly, is a resounding YES -- but not tomorrow. We have to keep at it, and be cheered by the thousands of young people now entering the movement. The Pro-Life Vigil Mass in Washington, with the enormous turnout and participation of young people, is part of this.

There is something that you and I both confront with some frequency. At least, I know I do. That something is criticism. It can come from friend or from foe. It can be constructive or not. We are told that We’re too far to the "right"; we’re too far to the "left"; we need to do more, or we need to do it differently; we talk too much about respect for life, or we don’t say enough about it.

Now, none of us is above constructive criticism. And I certainly include myself in that. But I want to start this wonderful conference by pointing out things you have accomplished, and how I see them moving our society toward a culture of life. I have the deepest admiration and gratitude for all that you do for the cause of life. And I have very special admiration for our extremely able staff, led by Gail Quinn, and supported by a National Conference team with expertise in law, communications and relations with government.

In the midst of battle, it is perhaps impossible for you to step back and take stock. So I would like to tell you what I see.

Important Accomplishments

I see in every diocese in this nation services for the asking that help any woman who is pregnant and in need; services that assist her throughout pregnancy and beyond. There are more than 3000 such programs across the country, many sponsored or subsidized by your dioceses. Such services involve numerous volunteers, training, the meshing of programs, special telephone lines, medical care, advertising, and much more. This is a major undertaking, and you and those who work with you do it so well you make it look easy.

We have all heard the charge that pro-life people care only for unborn children, and care nothing about the mother--or for the child once born. You and I know that nothing could be further from the truth. Nationwide, Catholic Charities last year served 9,770,450 families in need of basic services--food, shelter, counseling. Our Catholic schools, especially in our inner cities, educate the poorest of the poor, regardless of their faith. We leave no one behind.

We have difficulty getting media attention, but, bit by bit, this too is happening.

When Pope John Paul II came to Baltimore, he had lunch at Our Daily Bread, the soup kitchen next to the historic Basilica of the Assumption. At table with him that day were people helped by our Catholic Charities. Among them was a young mother who had been through our Villa Louise program. She became pregnant at age 17, and dropped out of high school then. Through the program we taught her the skills of motherhood, helped her complete her high school studies and then go on to college. She was in her senior year of college at the time of the Holy Father’s visit. She explained all of this to Pope John Paul, with her 4-year-old sitting beside her.

I see programs for those suffering from abortion flourishing in more than 130 dioceses today. I know you are aware of the special Jubilee program developed by the bishops to reach out with hope and God’s love to those harmed by abortion. In my own archdiocese, during February and March when the program aired, we experienced a 10-fold increase in the number of women who called for help and who we were able to refer to priests or lay counselors through our Project Rachel ministry. Here in Washington, D.C. there was an astounding 23-fold increase. This is a major undertaking that involves the training of priests and lay counselors, other volunteers, special phone numbers, appropriate office space, and advertising to make these services known. Not to mention great understanding and compassion. So important is the service component that our local dioceses spent a full year in strengthening their services before the campaign began so that the expected enormous influx of calls for help could be handled. And they came from people of all faiths and no faith, indicating especially a universal sense of the death of a person when abortion takes place. I urge those of you who may be planning to sponsor a program of outreach, to be sure before it airs that the services that lie at the heart of the program are in place and well prepared.

In the past three years, you have worked to see numerous pro-life bills become law in your states. You helped to place laws on the books to protect minors from being taken for abortions without their parents’ knowledge or consent. Laws that help a woman contemplating abortion to receive information about the development of her child, and about abortion itself, including its possible harmful effects on her. You enacted bans on partial-birth abortion in 30 sates. Believe me, such efforts are carefully tracked by abortion advocacy groups, which have expressed dismay at the sheer volume of pro-life legislation. In a number of states, you successfully turned back efforts to legalize assisted suicide. In Maine this year there is a referendum on assisted suicide, and the Church is playing a leadership role in this effort as well.

For the past five years you have also worked to enact a ban on partial-birth abortion at the federal level. You were responsible for flooding Congress with many millions of postcards. You sponsored programs of prayer. And you educated others about this horrible procedure. Today, we are faced not only with President Clinton’s repeated vetoes of the federal ban, but with the Supreme Court’s horrendous decision in June striking down the Nebraska partial-birth abortion ban. We will talk more about that later, and I know this morning you have a panel of experts who will discuss possible strategies for getting at the root of the problem--Roe v. Wade. However, I would like to call attention to the educational impact of the debate on partial-birth abortion. This was a debate that took the issue of abortion and put it on the television news and in the newspapers, and it had the effect of causing people to see abortion, to think about abortion. Its results, both directly and indirectly:

  • The number of abortions, which began to decline in the early 1990s, has continued a steady decline, while at the same time the number of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and births to single women also declined. o Public support for Roe v. Wade has decreased significantly, from 56% in 1991 to 43% today. Less than a decade ago 28% of Americans said they opposed Roe v. Wade; today 42% oppose that decision. Last year, there was a vote in the U.S. Senate to voice support for Roe v. Wade. But that affirmation received only 51 votes--and it took place before the Supreme Court revealed in its Stenberg ruling, the Nebraska partial-birth abortion case, how radical the implications of Roe really are.
  • You have been successful in stemming the tide of euthanasia and assisted suicide in your states. Dozens of states have had legislation introduced that sought to legalize assisted suicide. In all states but Oregon, you succeeded in defeating such measures. And in Oregon, it was surely not for lack of trying. Never have I seen a state work so hard. In other states the trend is toward enacting new laws against assisted suicide and strengthening those which exist, with laws enacted in my state of Maryland and in Michigan, Virginia and South Carolina in the past three years. More recently, Michigan undertook a major campaign with great success. In Maine, this year, as I mentioned, there is an important referendum on legalizing assisted suicide. I know the Church and others there are working very hard to defeat this. Please keep them in your prayers, and if there are other ways in which you can help, I encourage you to do so.
  • You helped to pass the Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act in 1997, to prevent all federal funding and other support for assisted suicide. And your efforts to pass the Pain Relief Promotion Act have done enormously well. The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives in June by an overwhelming margin, and stands poised for Senate approval next month.
  • The very important conferences you have held in recent years are having long-lasting impact: I think of the conference this March co-sponsored with Women Affirming Life, which focused on the Feminine Genius and the Culture of Life, and the wonderful conference last March, In God’s Image: Called to Build a Culture of Life. Our staff, with the Knights of Columbus and the Columbus School of Law, hopes to build on that experience by sponsoring a live, interactive discussion on the Internet. This will likely take place next spring. Catholic University also helped us to hold an important conference in 1997 on Assisted Suicide. Efforts such as these go a long way in educating people and encouraging them to work to build a culture of life.
  • Whether you are implementing the annual Respect Life Program, working on behalf of life-giving public policies, providing necessary services in your dioceses—all part of the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities--you have built your efforts on a the solid base of faith and have made prayer an integral part of your efforts on behalf of life, and a core part of your own lives. We must do no less. For we know that we do not labor alone. I was pleased to learn that time has been planned each day during your conference for prayer and reflection. This is very important in nurturing the needed virtues of wisdom, courage and patience.
  • I see young people, in ever growing numbers, anxious to live their lives based on Christ’s Gospel, as they reject out of hand the empty rhetoric that tells them satisfaction is to be found in absolute autonomy and self-gratification. These are young people inspired by Pope John Paul II and others, including yourselves, to become involved in efforts to build a culture of life.

The most strident opposition to our pro-life efforts comes perhaps from individuals and groups heavily invested in abortion for one reason or another. Some may seek affirmation of a past abortion experience; some, perhaps even many, may truly believe that they are helping women by promoting abortion; others seek to protect a lucrative industry whose only service is to destroy human lives with a curette, a vacuum, chemicals or lethal injection.

Touching a Nerve

As the Archdiocese of Boston began the Project Rachel outreach program a few weeks ago, the National Abortion Federation and Planned Parenthood held a press conference to denounce the Church’s effort. Their message: women are not traumatized by abortion. To the degree there is any trauma, it is guilt caused by the Church’s teaching against abortion. They will not look and see the pain that is there.

Sometimes the opposition is little more than thinly veiled anti-Catholicism. Perhaps you are aware—but I wasn’t until recently—that Planned Parenthood and others have announced a concerted effort to force all employers that provide health insurance that covers prescription drugs to include coverage of prescriptions for birth control and abortifacient drugs. They will brook no exceptions, no conscience protection for those opposed on religious and moral grounds. We saw this recently played out in a most ugly manner when the Washington, D.C. City Council, following a public debate during which some Council members mocked and vilified the Church, voted to force all employers in the district--including the Archdiocese of Washington, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and local Catholic hospitals, schools, and other entities--to provide their employees with coverage for contraceptives and abortifacients. Congress threatened to intervene to keep this from happening. The Mayor of Washington vetoed the bill.

Challenges That Lie Ahead

On June 28, by a 5-4 majority, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Nebraska’s ban on partial-birth abortion to be unconstitutional. In doing so, it also effectively struck down similar laws in 29 other states. Laws you worked hard to pass. This was truly a disastrous decision, through which the Court has now expanded Roe v. Wade’s sway to virtual infanticide. On a personal note, the week of that decision I addressed the Stenberg decision in my homily for the coming Sunday, and sent points on the homily and a press release about the decision by e-mail to every priest in the Archdiocese.

I will not go into the details of the Stenberg decision. I know you have studied it, and our program this morning flows from that decision. But it is a document couched in painfully meaningless language. I would never have thought there could be a Supreme Court decision that uses the jargon of a "right to choose" as if that term had meaning. The right to choose what?

Indicating its fierce determination to allow nothing to stand in the way of the 28-year old abortion liberty fashioned by the Supreme Court, the National Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) has publicly opposed Congress’ attempt to protect children who survive an abortion. What is increasingly clear is that abortion advocacy groups want to protect not only the right to "choose" to terminate the life of a child before it is born, but the right to "choose" to have a child die, whether before, during or after birth.

In dissenting from Stenberg, Justice Scalia explained that he joined in Justice Thomas’ dissent because he agrees that the Court’s decision in Stenberg is an unwarranted expansion of Casey. But he went further, calling for Casey to be overturned. He’s correct. Casey must be overturned.

But the root of the problem as I see it is not so much Casey as it is Roe v. Wade itself. It is Roe that made abortion legal throughout pregnancy for virtually any reason or none at all. It is Roe and its companion case Doe v. Bolton that made even "health exceptions" meaningless because "health" in the context of abortion includes everything related to a woman’s well being, including her age and marital status. It is Roe v. Wade that must be reversed, along with the subsequent decisions it has spawned.

That is not news to you. And there is no silver bullet in terms of how to best accomplish this. Some advise continuing an incremental legislative approach, others advise a strategy that involves litigation designed to reach the Supreme Court; some, including Justice Scalia, advise taking the issue of abortion out of the Federal arena and sending it back to the states to be resolved, and others recommend a constitutional amendment that would make abortion illegal throughout the land.

The bishops will be considering how best to move forward in the coming months. In the meantime, I am looking forward to this morning’s panel discussion which will explore various strategies. It is my intention to take what I learn from this discussion to the September meeting of the NCCB Pro-Life Committee so they might discuss it further.

Challenges and Danger Signals

  • We face the challenge of keeping our nation from walking down the path of assisted suicide as it once walked down the path to abortion. Fortunately, thanks to your hard work, we have many more allies in the effort. Allies that include the American Medical Association, hospice organizations, eminent physicians such as Dr. C. Everett Koop. The Pain Relief Promotion Act is an important step in this effort. But just as critical, if not more so, is the ongoing education in parishes, schools and elsewhere in the community on the intrinsic value and dignity of human life. It is this that undergirds our opposition to the taking of innocent human life through abortion and euthanasia.
  • There is growing support among some research and charitable organizations, such as the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association, for research that involves destroying human embryos to obtain their stem cells. Those who support such research have convinced themselves that this research holds promise or could possibly help in eradicating human disease. I understand the desire to help people suffering from disease. But one cannot kill one human being to restore health to another. Adult stem cell research, on the other hand, is often overlooked, despite the fact that it holds out even more promise in terms of restoring health, while at the same time avoiding problems of tissue rejection.
  • RU-486-- which will take the lives of unborn children through a fatal combination of drugs--looms ahead. And there are efforts to promote over-the-counter "emergency contraceptives."
  • Ours is the only "developed" nation, which, in the name of its citizens, kills convicted criminals. If ever there was a need to resort to the death penalty in order to protect society, no such need exists today. The Holy Father called it "unnecessary and cruel" and reminded us that taking the criminal’s life also lessens the opportunity for conversion and repentance. We must make a concerted effort to address capital punishment as Pope John Paul II does in Evangelium Vitae--opposing the death penalty based on our understanding of the need to respect every human life if we are to build a culture of life.

Build on Our Strength

Our agenda is large. What is at stake is enormous. And I know at times it can seem as if our resources are too scarce for the job at hand.

I am not about to tell you that there is no need for money. Of course, that is not true. But I can tell you that our resources are not half as scarce as we may sometimes think. In fact, we are quite rich in ways that pro-abortion groups can only dream of.

We reel every time we see the latest budget figures for groups like Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and Ms. Kissling’s group. Planned Parenthood has almost $50 million a year from taxes alone. Wealthy foundations with an agenda provide more funds, and give generously to NARAL and others. But all that says is that abortion advocacy groups are essentially well-funded organizations, with well-paid staff able to spend time, energy and money promoting abortion in the public square. Even Catholics for a Free Choice has been singled out by a number of foundations to promote an agenda of abortion advocacy and religious intolerance. Frances Kissling is paid over $200,000 to do what she does. I don’t have to ask if there is anyone in this room that makes such a salary. But what Ms. Kissling lacks, what NARAL lacks, what Planned Parenthood lacks, and that you have in great abundance, is PEOPLE. We may have to work with small budgets, but our grassroots support is the envy of any advocacy group. On any issue. A few examples:

  • We want to send a message to Congress. Planned Parenthood takes out a $50,000 ad. You send 37 million individually signed messages in the mail. So many, the U.S. Congressional Post Office comes to a halt. I ask you: which has the bigger impact?
  • During the Project Rachel outreach, some 60 priests offered their services and were specially trained to join other counselors in responding to calls. How many services does NARAL provide to women in need? None that I’m aware of.
  • Can we even count the number of volunteers --the strength of pro-life movement—who staff telephone hotlines year in and year out, helping women and men to get the services they need?
  • How many people in your dioceses are involved in the Church’s pro-life effort in one form or another. They may serve on parish Respect Life Committees, monitor the media and respond when necessary. They lobby the state legislature on pro-life matters, and contact their U.S. Representatives and Senators when necessary.
  • How many who are unable to take part in public efforts, support our efforts through daily prayer? We can’t begin to count them.
  • How many people are reached through information carried in our diocesan newspapers or through Catholic radio or television? Again, we can’t count them.

I do not mean to say that money is not necessary. It is. And for particular projects it can be found. There are Catholic foundations that might be approached for specific projects, and there are men and women blessed with significant resources across the country who might readily support a project such as the Project Rachel outreach.

But we are also rich in the enduring, committed and even tenacious grassroots support found in every diocese and every parish across the nation from east to west and north to south. We are rich indeed.

Part of our richness and our strength lies in our mission, which is so consonant with the founding principles of our nation, as we bishops pointed out in Renewing the Gospel of Life. As I said at the Vigil for Life Mass last year in the Basilica of the National Shrine here in Washington: "You, too, are people with a mission. Your mission is to secure the foundations of the American house of freedom. You do that by working, by praying, and by marching … for the day when every unborn child in America is welcomed in life and protected by law. You do that by defending the human dignity of the sick, the suffering, the handicapped, the dying, and all those whom society is tempted to think of as ‘inconvenient.’ You help secure the foundations of the American house of freedom by reminding our fellow citizens and our public officials that America’s independence began when the founders pledged their sacred honor to the defense of the inalienable and self-evident right to life. America is in your debt for what you 3do and for what you are."

In the coming months, the Committee for Pro-Life Activities will be considering ways to help the bishops show publicly their unwavering commitment to restoring legal protection to the lives of unborn children and to building a culture of life that respects each and every human life from conception until natural death.

It is also the intention of the Committee to update and ask the bishops to affirm the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities. This Plan, 25 years old this November, undergirds all that we do and how we do it. As we focus on this, your observations and input would be most welcome. On Saturday there will be a round-table discussion of this, and I know Gail will bring your suggestions to a Committee most grateful to have them.

I want to encourage you in the important work that you do, and encourage as well the continued development and expansion of parish Respect Life Committees. The resources developed by the Pro-Life Secretariat can provide parish Committee members with the necessary tools to move the Respect for Life agenda forward in the local community. The Respect Life packet, for example, Life Insight, Life at Risk, and the World of Life liturgical suggestions.

Over the past five months we have all sorely missed a dear friend, a selfless and charismatic leader. I speak, of course, of Cardinal John O’Connor. I was the last Cardinal to visit with him before his death in May. It was a grace, and I shall never forget the serenity of his smile. And I want to tell you that each of us can draw courage and strength from his smile as well as from his words—his example of how to be unconditionally, everlastingly, enthusiastically pro-life.

God bless you.