Witnessing to Life in 2014
[This is the text of the Keynote Talk for the Sacred Heart Major Seminarians’ 5th Annual Charity “Dinner for Life” for Rachel’s Vineyard on February 7, 2014, in Detroit. Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D., is Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.]
My talk is entitled, “The Births and Baptisms that Never Were: From the ‘Old Ethic’ to the ‘New Ethic’—Witnessing to Life in 2014.”
Let me begin with a stanza from a short poem of mine:
I was born between a “Dream”
And a bullet…On November 2, ’63
And christened on the day the headline screamed,
“Oswald Shot to Death by Ruby”
Well now you know—whether you really wanted to or not!—two significant biographical facts about me that many of you most likely didn’t know before. One, that I was brought into the world in the fall of 1963, just over two months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and two, that I was baptized on the same day that shady nightclub owner Jack Ruby brazenly shot and killed President John F. Kennedy’s assassin on live TV. Obviously, all of us here tonight share the reality of a particular birthdate. And all of us who are Christian share, of course, the reality of a particular baptismal date. You know now the day my natural life began as well as the day my supernatural life began.
When I think about abortion, I think with a heavy heart about all of the unborn babies who were denied—at least some 56 million in this country alone since Roe v. Wade was decided in January 1973—the opportunity to have a birthdate and to be gifted by God with divine life. Yes, abortions in our country have been dropping—indeed to their lowest rate since legalization in 1973—as a recent study found (http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/psrh.46e0414.pdf). But we still have over 1 million per year. That’s a staggering number. It was the poet Charles Péguy who said, “Life holds only one tragedy, ultimately: not to have been a saint.” I agree! But to be a saint, one needs to have been born in the first place. And so it’s true for every other human good as well, whether we speak of education, marriage, work, or play. One must first be born before one can realize a particular good in one’s life.
It would take too long to trace in detail the steps of “how we got here,” i.e., of how what Blessed Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) called the “culture of death,” was formed. What I would like to do, though, is give you some small idea of how this culture was constructed and then draw some brief lessons for our pro-life work as we go forward in protecting the babies and the mothers who are threatened by abortion. As it turns out, the “culture of death” has been a work in progress for about 50 years, or since about the time I took my first breath.
From the Old Ethic to the New Ethic
I want to begin by focusing on a remarkable editorial that appeared in California Medicine, the official journal of the California Medical Association, in 1970—three years before Roe v. Wade—and which has been published many times over the years in the Human Life Review. This 44-year-old editorial crystallizes the anti-life thinking that had begun to take shape in the 1960s, only to accelerate in the 1970s. It is one of the most succinct and illuminating articulations you will ever find of the “new ethic,” the “Secular Humanist ethic,” infiltrating Western society in the second half of the 20th century. It goes a long way in explaining where all of the births and baptisms have gone.
I quote a key passage from the editorial:
The process of eroding the old ethic and substituting the new has already begun. It may be seen most clearly in changing attitudes toward human abortion. In defiance of the long held Western ethic of intrinsic and equal value for every human life regardless of its stage, condition, or status, abortion is becoming acceptable by society as moral, right, and even necessary. . . . since the old ethic has not been fully displaced it has been necessary to separate the idea of abortion from the idea of killing, which continues to be socially abhorrent. The result has been a curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra- or extra-uterine until death. The very considerable semantic gymnastics which are required to rationalize abortion as anything but taking a human life would be ludicrous if they were not often put forth under socially impeccable auspices. It is suggested that this schizophrenic sort of subterfuge is necessary because while a new ethic is being accepted the old one has not yet been rejected. [California Medicine 113, no. 3 (1970), reprinted in The Human Life Review 1, no. 1 (1975): 103-4]
We see five eye-opening—and dangerous—ideas in this piece:
(1) In the “new ethic,” the notion that every human life has equal dignity and inherent worth is to be rejected and replaced by the idea that life is of relative value, based on its age (of development), its physical and mental health, its quality of life, its social circumstances, and so forth.
(2) Because there are still vestiges left of the “old ethic,” i.e., the Judeo-Christian ethic, we have to disassociate abortion from the notion of killing. Darn those traditionalists for thinking that abortion takes an innocent human life! How dare they be so backward!
(3) It will take an act of willful blindness to ignore what everyone knows that modern science itself knows: “human life begins at conception,” when sperm and egg unite to form a new being separate from his or her mother and father, sharing their flesh yes, but composed of its own unique DNA. The editorial is refreshingly honest about this; but back then, science was not as corrupted by ideology—at least not yet.
(4) Needed is a concerted effort to twist words—“semantic gymnastics”—so as to convince people that abortion is not what it really is and cannot not be: the taking of a human life. For example, although the word “fetus” is a perfectly good word to describe an unborn human baby more than eight weeks after conception, its use today reveals this strategy to manipulate words in an effort to obscure something—in this case, the humanity of the unborn. But we should already be suspicious: moderns use Latin only when they want to hide something!
(5) This stealth campaign—this “subterfuge”—is necessary because, well, as the editorial observed, the “old ethic” hasn’t quite died off yet; it’s still got some, pardon the pun, life in it, however much it might be on life-support.
For a paragraph of just 184 words, it’s sure put a lot more than food on our plate to think about! From this brief sketch of how the “unthinkable”—abortion-on-demand—became “thinkable,” then “acceptable,” then a “right,” we can draw some lessons. But I want you to think of these lessons really as a kind of “marching orders.” That is, as some of the concrete steps we have to take to give every child a chance at birth and baptism beginning anew in 2014.
Every Child a Chance at Birth and Baptism
Each of these five steps corresponds to the five we found in the paragraph I quoted from the editorial above.
(1) We need to return the favor, as it were, of the “new ethic” and promote the return of the “old ethic”—which really isn’t old if what we mean by old isn’t something “stale,” “outdated,” and “washed-up,” but rather “deep-rooted,” “longstanding,” and “time-tested”—with its belief in the sanctity of every human life.
(2) We have to keep reminding people that abortion is the unjust killing of a human being. That’s what abortion is; no amount of rationalization or mental somersaults can alter that fact. We have to proclaim this fact over-and-over again and do so everywhere and to every person we can.
(3) We also need to remember that medical science is on our side on the question of when human life begins; science itself says so! Let’s never forget that fact. And let’s tell that to every person who will listen. But let’s understand too that science isn’t “self-interpreting”; it needs the guidance of sound philosophy and ethics both to interpret its findings and to remain true to its high calling of pursuing the truth. But as with the lack of faith in Jesus’ miracles on the part of some in the crowd, not all will accept the beautiful truth that modern science reveals about the nascent child in the womb. Ideology, the secular culture, and sin can block a person’s (and a culture’s) understanding of God’s moral law and the natural law.
(4) Against the contorted use of language to denigrate and dehumanize the humanity of the unborn and to obfuscate, hide, and conceal the violence of the abortion act, we “people of life” must use language accurately—to speak the truth in love to those who oppose us. Calling abortion a “procedure” and abortionists “providers” masks the grisly reality of what abortion is and what abortionists do!
(5) We must continue to make it clear that the pro-life movement is here to stay. We’re not going anywhere! Our prayers, our protests, and our crisis pregnancy centers will continue from one generation to the next! Imagine our culture without those who proclaim the right-to-life! Such darkness and shadows! We may not, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr., see the “Promised Land” of justice for all, including the unborn, in our lifetime, but our testimony to the dignity of every human life, our testimony to the “inviolability creed” of human life’s sanctity from “womb to tomb,” is an invaluable witness in a culture that has cheapened life on the street, in the mother’s womb, and in the hospital room.
With a natural reason that is open to and inspired by our Christian faith, let’s continue striving to build the antithesis to the “culture of death.” To put it positively, let’s go forth from this place renewed in spirit to be faithful to the task of continuing, with God’s help, to construct what Blessed John Paul II called in Evangelium vitae, a “culture of life”!
Whatever your profession, whatever your vocation, or “state of life,” let us work, finally, toward a world where unjust laws, such as Roe v. Wade and its companion Doe v. Bolton, end up in the same dustbin of history as the pro-slavery “Dred Scott Decision” (1857), distant memories of a more cruel and violent age. All those countless babies yet born, along with their mothers and fathers threatened by abortion, are counting on us.
Thank you and God bless you!