One day, a priest of my acquaintance heard the voice of a young woman through the screen of his confessional: “Father, tomorrow I will have an abortion. I know that it is wrong. Can you forgive me in advance?” The priest was stunned. “Dear child,” he said, “what you’re asking for is not forgiveness, but permission, and I can’t give you that. But stay a minute, please. Tell me: Who is the victim of abortion?” The woman was silent, as though wondering why the priest should ask such an obvious question. “My baby is the victim,” she replied. “I will kill my baby.” Then, the priest went on: “What about yourself? Won’t you suffer too—even more than your baby, because your baby will go to God. Your baby won’t be sorry, but you will—you will suffer all your life because of what you did.”
By the time the priest had finished speaking, the other side of his confessional was empty. Several days later, the same priest was walking on a street near his church. The street was full of people. He felt someone touch his arm, and from behind he heard a familiar voice: “I didn’t do it, Father. I thought you’d like to know,” and the woman disappeared into the crowd.
When I first became active in the pro-life movement, I thought it was about stopping abortions. I thought its purpose was like that of the civil rights movement, to bring about social change by political means. I participated in Rescues, and I got arrested. As a part-time soldier in the culture wars, I was quite severe in my judgment of pro-choice Catholic politicians.
Then I read a book by Dr. Bernard Nathanson, The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life. As many readers know, Nathanson founded the first abortion clinic in New York, the largest in the world at the time, and campaigned for repeal of the abortion laws. In his book, he says there were two things that precipitated his “journey from death to life”: medically, it was the evidence of ultra-sound, which enabled him to “really see the human fetus, measure it, observe it, watch it, and indeed bond with it and love it”; and spiritually, it was his growing awareness of people praying at his clinic. He attributes his conversion from atheism to these prayers, and he was received into the Catholic Church by Cardinal John O’Connor in 1996.
Cardinal O’Connor also founded the Sisters of Life, an order of nuns who in addition to vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, also profess to “protect and enhance the sacredness of human life.” The Sisters of Life have helped to change my perspective on pro-life activity—I no longer think of it as a political movement to bring about social change, or even as a campaign to reduce the number of abortions. Rather, it is a commitment to the good of the women who had (or were tempted to have) abortions, and also to the good of the people who provided and performed abortions—a commitment to the salvation of souls. Much as we may desire pro-life legislation, we who bear the name of Christ make souls (not politics) our business: the good of this person who is in distress, whom we could help—this particular person’s good, for time and for eternity.
So when I came to be pastor of a big church in the city, I was happy to discover a group of parishioners and friends who gave practical help, and personal companionship, to women who imagined that abortion was their only realistic choice. These people, who volunteered at a local crisis pregnancy center, were devoted to preventing (if they could) the heavy moral and spiritual price these women would have to pay if they made that choice. They were realistic in a deeper sense.
Pregnancy center workers reach out to people one by one; do whatever they can on a small scale with limited resources; and make all the difference in the world for someone whom they help to find a good alternative to the dreadful choice that she was about to make. We don’t expect massive social change to come as a result of what they do; we don’t expect a reversal of the decadence of our society; but we know that what they do can turn a potentially lost soul into one who is “found”—found by God, the giver of life and love. And Jesus said that one soul was worth more than the whole world.
Crisis pregnancy centers are one of those thousand “points of light” that President Bush the elder memorably spoke of in his inauguration address. A point of light does not dispel the darkness, but serves as a guide in the darkness. The helpers do that for the people who come to them; they do what Mother Teresa described in her famous Washington Prayer Breakfast talk: “How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love and we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts . . . So, the mother who is thinking of abortion should be helped to love, that is, to give until it hurts her plans, or her free time, to respect the life of her child.”
Pope St. John Paul II coined the phrase Gospel of Life. It expresses our faith in God, the giver of life; and the great offense it gives to the giver of life to dispose of a life—one’s own or another’s—when it isn’t wanted. I have met women who were tempted to take their own lives because they had taken the life of their unborn child. The Church offers help, not just to prevent an abortion, but to heal the effect of an abortion, as in Project Rachel or the Bethesda Healing Ministry, which offer reconciliation to everyone involved—to fathers and families, and to former abortionists as well.
It’s much easier to help one person at a time than to try to change society; but in a sense, it’s also harder, because to take on the burden of another person’s life, to walk with them awhile so as to give them hope, may sometimes mean to give of oneself “until it hurts.” There’s no guarantee of success, but there is the promise of the Lord, to reward whatever we have done for sister or brother, the least of them, as being done for him.