by Cardinal Justin Rigali
Since 1972, the Catholic bishops in the United States have set aside the first Sunday in October as Respect Life Sunday. On Oct. 7, Catholics will again pray for — and renew their resolve to bring about — a culture of life and an end to the killing of innocent human beings, especially those who are vulnerable due to their age, size, health or dependency.
The theme of the 2007 Respect Life program — “The Infant in My Womb Leaped for Joy” — calls to mind an extraordinary scene in Luke’s Gospel (1:39-56). Mary, newly pregnant with the Lord Jesus, is visiting her elderly cousin Elizabeth whose son, John, will soon be born. The moment Mary’s greeting reaches Elizabeth’s ears and John’s, the tiny prophet announces to his mother the Messiah’s arrival, as if his entire being were exclaiming: “Behold! The Lamb of God!”
There was no confusion as to what and who were nestled under their mothers’ hearts. Yet 2,000 years later, many well-educated people do not know — or claim they do not know — the truth about human life before birth.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal ban on partial-birth abortion, in an opinion that explicitly recognizes the humanity of unborn children and the grief women experience after abortion. Yet the killing of unborn children at any stage of pregnancy remains legal, provided that the lethal act is performed while the child is mostly inside his or her mother’s body.
In June, President Bush vetoed a bill to fund stem-cell research requiring the destruction of human embryos, and directed his administration to investigate alternative means of producing pluripotent stem cells “by ethically responsible techniques.” Yet some supporters of embryonic stem-cell research continue to dismiss concerns about destroying human embryos, because they are “no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence.”
We will not see the day when all human life is respected and defended unless we address a deeper problem. As Pope Benedict XVI has said:
“If truth does not exist for man, then neither can he ultimately distinguish between good and evil. And then the great and wonderful discoveries of science become double-edged: They can open up significant possibilities for good, for the benefit of mankind, but also, as we see only too clearly, they can pose a terrible threat, involving the destruction of man and the world. We need truth.” (Excerpted from the pope’s homily at Marianzell, Austria, on Sept. 8.)
Days after Pope Benedict’s homily, the New Jersey Supreme Court claimed to have no way of knowing the truth about “when human life begins.” Dismissing a lawsuit against an abortion clinic which concealed the truth about abortion from women, the court claimed there is “clearly no consensus” on whether, as matter of “biological fact,” the unborn child is a “human being.” The court cited “moral, theological, [and] ideological” disagreement to ignore biological fact. We need truth.
Some ethicists suggest that patients who apparently lack conscious awareness — although otherwise healthy and not imminently dying — can be dehydrated and starved to death because their lives are not fully human but “vegetative.” This ignores the insight expressed in 2004 by Pope John Paul II and recently reaffirmed by the Holy See under Pope Benedict XVI, that “the intrinsic value and personal dignity of every human being do not change, no matter what the concrete circumstances of his or her life. A man, even if seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his highest functions, is and always will be a man, and he will never become a ‘vegetable’ or an ‘animal.’” We need truth.
On this Respect Life Sunday, we ask Catholics and all people of good will to witness to the truth about the incomparable dignity and right to life of every human being. This is no sectarian creed. The “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (Preamble, U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989). And that is the truth.