Apostles of Life: Remarks on Receiving the Evangelium Vitae Medal

| Topics: Civil Rights and Liberties, Constitutional Issues, Natural Law, Religion

Published in Public Discourse

Evangelium Vitae: the gospel of life. What is that gospel—that good news?

It is the good news—the very good news—that each and every member of the human family, as a creature fashioned in the image and likeness of the divine Creator and Ruler of all, is the bearer of profound, inherent, and equal dignity.

It is the astonishing news that, in the human family, everyone’s life is inestimably precious; there are no inferiors and no superiors in essential worth and basic rights.

It is, of course, true that people are different and, indeed, unequal in myriad ways. People are far from alike or equal in strength, intelligence, beauty, skill, dexterity, deftness, wit, and charm, as well as in wealth, power, influence, and social status. But the gospel of life relativizes all those differences and inequalities.

As creatures made in the image and likeness of God, every member of the human family is entitled to be treated with dignity and have his or her fundamental rights—beginning with the most fundamental and foundational of all rights, the right to life—honored, irrespective of such things as race, sex, and ethnicity, to be sure, but also irrespective of age, size, location, stage of development, or condition of dependence.

As children of the common Father, in whose image we are made, we human beings are a family. We are quite literally, and not merely metaphorically, brothers and sisters. Our bonds are familial bonds; our obligations to each other, familial obligations.

Injustices—above all, the unjust taking of human life—are not and can never be “none of our business,” for we are, again literally and not merely metaphorically, “our brother’s keeper.” And so our obligations—and let me be clear, our duties as a matter of justice to others—are not confined to not unjustly taking life. They extend to protecting others from those who would unjustly take their lives. When we fail in those duties, we commit injustices against those to whom the duties are owed.

Today, in the case of the precious child in the womb, justice demands not only that we refrain from taking his or her life, or directly cooperating in his or her destruction; justice requires that we, especially in our role as citizens, protect our unborn brothers and sisters and resist those who would expose them to the lethal violence of abortion. It is our fundamental duty in justice to demand that they—and everyone else—be afforded the full and equal protection of the laws. Those holding public office and exercising political power who sin against unborn babies, by exposing them to violent attack, commit a grave injustice. This injustice is intensified, not mitigated, when they claim to be people of faith and rationalize their wrongdoing by averring that they are simply declining to impose their religious beliefs on others.

Justice requires that we, especially in our role as citizens, protect our unborn brothers and sisters and resist those who would expose them to the lethal violence of abortion.

The very same principles require that we reach out in love and compassion to the precious mothers of unborn children—mothers who sometimes are indeed in gravely difficult, dangerous, even dire situations; mothers who are often under intense pressure from boyfriends, husbands, parents or other relatives, or employers—intense pressure to, in those shockingly callous but all too familiar words, “get rid of it.” Our motto—“Love them both”—is more than a slogan. It is more than a pledge. It is not something “beyond the call of duty.” It is our duty. And it is a duty that the pro-life movement, contrary to the vile slanders of the pro-abortion movement and the chorus that echoes its talking points in the media, has been fulfilling for the more than five decades of its existence.

Can our movement do still more? Should we do more? Yes and yes. We can. We should. And we will. What we will never do is offer our beloved sisters the ghoulish pseudo-compassion of the abortionist’s knife. We will offer, instead, the healing balm of genuine compassion, compassion born of love, compassion that offers, not a quick and easy, but deadly, “solution,” but rather an open-ended, open-hearted, self-sacrificial commitment. We have done this for fifty years. We will continue to do it.

What we will never do is offer our beloved sisters the ghoulish pseudo-compassion of the abortionist’s knife.

The Pro-Life Movement, before and after Roe

My own mother recruited me into the pro-life movement when I was a young teenager. This was before the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. Our movement formed in response to legislative efforts to weaken the protection of unborn children in states like Colorado, California, and New York. Those efforts were the work of a new movement that viewed abortion as the solution to two types of problems, the personal problems of women whose pregnancies were undesired and unwelcome, and the social problem of poor—and let’s not hide this fact—often minority children being born, children who, the pro-abortion movement said, would end up on the welfare rolls at taxpayer expense. The pro-abortion movement was further animated by the liberationist ethic, especially the sexual liberationist ethic, of the 1960s, and the belief—a ridiculous belief, as it turned out, but one widely held by elites at the time—that a so-called “population bomb” was on the verge of creating massive worldwide famines in which hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions, of people would die.

The pro-abortion movement claimed, knowingly falsely, that abortion needed to be legalized because tens of thousands of women each year in the United States were dying as a result of illegal, so-called “back alley” abortions. I repeat, and emphasize, that the pro-abortion movement made this claim while knowing it was false. We know that they knew, because the late Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a founder and leader of the movement, and himself a prominent abortionist, later in his life embraced the pro-life cause and revealed to the public that he and his colleagues knew the claims they made about death rates from illegal abortions were untrue—indeed, wildly untrue—when they made them. Nathanson also revealed that the movement he helped to found and lead, deliberately appealed to and stoked anti-Catholic prejudice to advance their cause, portraying opposition to abortion as nothing more than a reflection of Catholic dogma, and making the Catholic Church and faithful Catholic people out to be villains, who would rob others of their basic liberties, by imposing on them with the force of law their essentially sectarian religious precepts.

On the afternoon of Monday, January 22, 1973, I finished classes in the early afternoon and drove across town from my high school to join some women from my mother’s pro-life group in working a table at the West Virginia University student center, known as the Mountain Lair. As we were handing out our literature, a student walking past our table said to us, “Hey, there’s been a big decision from the Supreme Court on your issue.” “What is it?” we anxiously asked. “I don’t know” he said, “but it’s been on the news.” Well, we scurried off to find a radio—there being no internet or quick source of breaking news in those days. Then we waited for the hour, because there were no all-news channels; news was delivered “every hour on the hour.” We held out the hope that perhaps it was a big pro-life victory. But it was, of course, the very reverse of that. A constitutional atrocity and a moral catastrophe: Roe v. Wade.

To say that we were stunned would be the understatement of the century. After all, even non-lawyers knew that there was nothing in the text, logic, structure, or historical understanding of the Constitution that could provide a basis for the Court to declare a right to abortion, much less the sweeping right that was proclaimed in Roe v. Wade. It was clearly an illegitimate decision—in the words of dissenting Justice Byron White, an “exercise of raw judicial power.” On that day, our little group in West Virginia, like pro-lifers all across the country, vowed: “This will not stand.” We committed ourselves—our lives—to the project of overturning Roe. We didn’t know if it would be a five-year project, a ten-year project, or a twenty-year project. None of us, I suspect, thought that it would be a project that would take forty-nine years, five months, and two days. But we were determined to work as hard as we could for as long as it would take, even knowing that success in overturning Roe would only enable us to begin the next project—working through the mechanisms prescribed by the Constitution to secure for children in the womb actual legal protections, a project that would require us to persuade our fellow citizens to fulfill America’s promise of liberty and justice for all by bringing the unborn under the mantle of the law’s protection.

On that day, our little group in West Virginia, like pro-lifers all across the country, vowed: “This will not stand.” We committed ourselves—our lives—to the project of overturning Roe.

That, of course, is the challenge we face today. It is a challenge made even more difficult by the nearly fifty-year reign of Roe v. Wade. That is because, as Aristotle observed long ago, the law is, among other things, a teacher, a giver of moral instruction, a former of consciences. For forty-nine years, five months, and two days, our law taught a gross moral untruth. It taught generations of our people that the choice to destroy a child in utero is a basic liberty—indeed, a fundamental right. It taught that that the child himself or herself is as nothing—a blob of tissue, a meaningless mass, a mere object, a piece of property, rather than a person with dignity and a right to life. That is a false lesson that it is our job to help people to unlearn. And that will take effort … and time. We will, as Ryan Anderson, who leads the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., has recently pointed out in an excellent Wall Street Journal essay, need to go step by step, moving forward with determination and with prudence toward our goal of an America where every child is protected by law and welcomed in life. Victory will not come all at once, but each legislative achievement will plant the seeds of the next one.

A Dozen Pro-Life Heroes

I’m keenly aware that this is the first awarding of the Evangelium Vitae medal since the overturning of Roe v. Wade—an achievement that many people, those sympathetic to our cause as well as those unsympathetic to it, thought was not possible. After all, our opponents had everything going for them: power, money, prestige, control of the leading institutions of education, culture, philanthropy, entertainment, the economy, and, of course, the news media. We had, and have, none of those things. And yet, the reversal of Roe was made possible because pro-life people all over the country, people like my mother, never lost faith, never gave themselves permission to give up. Even in the face of devastating disappointments and betrayals, such as the grievous 1992 decision of the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, they kept hope alive and soldiered on.

It is on their behalf that I accept the Evangelium Vitae medal. I am not worthy of such recognition. They are. And I would like this evening to mention just a few heroes of our movement who did not live to see Roe fall, though they worked their hearts out to bring down that dishonorable decision. I hope that you will always regard them as the true recipients of the 2023 Evangelium Vitae medal. A complete list would include many more names than I will be able to mention and briefly profile. By no means am I diminishing the contributions of heroes I do not mention. But I would like to say a word about some of my personal pro-life heroes, people I knew and in some cases had the privilege of working closely with.

Dr. Mildred Jefferson was the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School and the first woman to graduate in surgery from Harvard. She worked tirelessly to defend unborn babies and, after Roe was handed down, to overturn it. She was an implacable foe of the dehumanization of anyone, anywhere. She served three times as President of the National Right to Life Committee. She was my friend. I drew inspiration from her.

Congressman Henry Hyde labored tirelessly, year in and year out, to protect unborn babies and overturn Roe. He was our champion in the fight to ensure that taxpayer dollars were not used by the federal government to fund elective abortions. He too was my friend, and I had the honor of working with him on many occasions.

Mrs. Nellie Gray was the indomitable, unstoppable founder and leader of the annual March for Life. It is simply impossible to exaggerate the role of the March, and thus the importance of Nellie’s work, in keeping the flame of hope burning in the pro-life movement. Nellie was the living embodiment of our movement’s determination to prevail, no matter the cost, no matter the sacrifices, no matter how long it took. The March was for Nellie quite literally a labor of love. And she taught all of us in the movement to see our work in precisely that way. Love for babies. Love for mothers. Love as the answer to the violence of abortion.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus was a mentor and one of my dearest friends in the world. As a young Lutheran pastor, he had been a leader in the anti–Vietnam War movement and in the civil rights movement, where he marched literally arm-in-arm with Rev. Martin Luther King. A gifted thinker and a brilliant speaker and writer, he was poised to become America’s next great religious public intellectual, the successor to Reinhold Niebuhr. But then the liberal establishment opted, tragically, to embrace abortion. Pastor Neuhaus had to choose whether to make himself acceptable to the cultural, educational, and economic elite—an elite that would, if he yielded on the question of abortion, confer upon him the highest forms of status, recognition, and worldly honors—or stand with unborn babies and their mothers. For Neuhaus, it was an easy choice, and required not even a moment’s deliberation. He became our movement’s intellectual and, in many ways, its spiritual leader. His vow, that we will “never weary, never rest” until all our nation’s children are protected in law and welcomed in life, became our rallying cry.

Governor Robert P. Casey, the last of the great pro-life Democrats, was one of the most principled men I ever had the honor to know. I had the privilege of working with him as an advisor and speechwriter on pro-life issues. When he was told, by no less than James Carville, who was running his campaign for Governor of Pennsylvania in 1986, that unless he “softened” his opposition to abortion he would lose, he simply responded, “then I will lose.” He won. Then, after pushing major pro-life legislation through the Pennsylvania legislature, he won again in 1990—this time over a pro-abortion Republican opponent and by a landslide of historic proportions. Governor Casey showed other pro-life politicians that leaders lead, and that by proclaiming and defending pro-life principles, pro-life candidates can win elections despite polling suggesting that the pro-life position is a “political loser.” Pro-life politicians need to be reminded of that message today.

Notre Dame’s own Professor Charlie Rice was one of the intellectual architects and leaders of the pro-life movement. A Marine lieutenant colonel and a legal scholar, he taught generations of Notre Dame law students—and lots of us who were not formally his students—how to make the legal case against Roe and for the child in the womb. He brought together reason and passion in a way I found remarkable and inspiring. He knew how to be tough in making an argument without being a bully. That’s because he was genuinely devoted to the truth, and in that way was a truly exemplary scholar and teacher.

Mr. Joe Scheidler, whom I had the honor of meeting on one or two occasions, was an advertising executive who took our nonviolent movement to the streets in the way that Martin Luther King took the civil rights movement to the streets. The New York Times, an organ that is scarcely sympathetic to the pro-life cause, acknowledged Mr. Scheidler’s effectiveness, noting that he “became a leading figure in the anti-abortion movement by marrying media savvy with confrontational tactics.” That, indeed, he did. A graduate of Notre Dame, Scheidler was known not only for his willingness to be confrontational, but also for his ability to be in dialogue and even friendship with abortion advocates, such as Bill Baird. His pro-life convictions were born of love, a love so great that it would not only prompt him to bear enormous personal risks and make profound sacrifices on behalf of the babies, but also enable him to regard even his most determined adversaries as friends to be loved and cherished, not enemies to be hated and destroyed. For Mr. Scheidler, no one was beyond redemption.

Germain Gabriel Grisez was my intellectual godfather. His 1970 book Abortion: The Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments remains one of the greatest works of scholarship on the subject ever produced. Were the expression of truth by itself capable of resolving disputed questions, the debate over abortion would have ended in a grand pro-life victory three years before Roe v. Wade was decided. In our world, though, truth, even when stated plainly and defended decisively, can be obscured, or ignored, and shunted aside. Still, Grisez’s work enabled the pro-life movement to proceed with profound confidence in the intellectual integrity and soundness of its convictions—and this was no small thing. To this day, it is in many ways unsurpassed.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, in 1994, literally petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States in an amicus curiae brief to “reverse Roe v. Wade and declare the unalienable right to life of the unborn child.” Due to the kindness of my friend, pro-life attorney Harold Cassidy, I had the honor to be Mother’s lawyer as lead counsel (what is known as “counsel of record”) on the brief—a brief whose principal draftsman was not me, but was rather my beloved friend William Porth, with whom I worked.

Dr. Hymie Gordon was a deeply observant Jew, the son of a rabbi in South Africa, who came to the United States to make his career in medicine, first at Johns Hopkins and then at the Mayo Clinic, where he established a pioneering program in medical genetics. Known as “the father of fetology,” Dr. Gordon was a profound believer in the sanctity of human life, and a physician and teacher who dedicated himself to the Hippocratic oath and the principles of Hippocratic medicine. He was appalled by the decision of medical school after medical school to remove from the oath its express prohibition on physicians inducing abortions. When medicine, as a profession, began heading down the wrong path, he spoke as a prophet—an Elijah, a Jeremiah—reminding his colleagues that the presence of a human being from conception forward was an established scientific fact, not a matter of metaphysical speculation or religious dogma, and calling out academic medicine for compromising its most basic values and abandoning its vocation to heal the sick and infirm and preserve human life.

John Cardinal O’Connor, the late Archbishop of New York, above all others, stood up to those politicians who, while professing to be “personally opposed” to abortion, supported its legal permission and even its public funding, ostensibly on the ground that to do otherwise would be to impose their religion on other people, in violation of the Constitution. This argument was absurd on its face, since the science of human embryogenesis and intrauterine development is clear, and unanimous, and has been for more than fifty years. It was never—I repeat, never—made in good faith, not by Mario Cuomo or Geraldine Ferraro in Cardinal O’Connor’s time, not by Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi or anyone else today. At a time when many religious leaders, for whatever reasons, were unwilling to call these people out for their bad faith and manifest injustice toward the most defenseless and vulnerable members of the human community, Cardinal O’Connor publicly confronted them and held them to account.

Nat Hentoff (who, as it happens, wrote a splendid, appreciative biography of Cardinal O’Connor), was the jazz music critic for the Village Voice newspaper, as well as its leading writer on civil liberties. He was an atheist, an old-school liberal, and a longstanding member and board member of the ACLU. Initially, he was fully onboard with abortion “reform.” But then he learned about “Baby Doe,” an infant diagnosed with a cognitive disability who was left by the parents and hospital staff to die. Outraged, he made a national issue of the Baby Doe case, only to find that his fellow liberals were all for abandoning the baby. If abortion was okay, they reasoned, what could be wrong with the infanticide of an infant whose life allegedly “wasn’t worth living’”? My friend Nat was shocked and scandalized by their reaction, and it made him think. If infanticide is not okay, how can elective abortion be okay? A man of unflinching intellectual honesty and moral integrity, he suddenly found himself in a place he never imagined being. He was a convert to the pro-life cause, and a passionate defender of the lives of all children, especially those most vulnerable—the unborn and disabled newborns. He wore his excommunication from the ACLU—which came, as you can imagine, in short order—as a badge of honor.

The Battle Ahead

Well, there you are. A dozen pro-life heroes, twelve apostles of life—from the atheist liberal Nat Hentoff to the Catholic saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta. We in the pro-life movement owe each of them an enormous debt of gratitude and we can and should continue to draw inspiration and strength from their work and witness.

It will be hard. We will have moments of disappointment. We will experience setbacks and, alas, betrayals. But we will not lose heart.

And we will need that inspiration and strength, because, as I suggested a moment ago, now we face an even more daunting challenge than reversing Roe v. Wade. With Roe gone we are finally on the field of battle, but powerful forces are arrayed against us.

Nevertheless, “with malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” It will be hard. We will have moments of disappointment. We will experience setbacks and, alas, betrayals. But we will not lose heart. We will not lose faith. We will not abandon hope. For we know that “He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat. He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat. Oh, be swift my soul to answer him, be jubilant my feet, for God is marching on!” And under His hand of blessing, trusting that He will never leave unaided those who in a righteous cause call upon His help, we shall overcome.

These remarks were delivered at the University of Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture on April 29, 2023.

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