Seeing Their Faces and Responding, The Anchor, January 22, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
January 22, 2010

We have all been watching with tear-filled eyes and pierced hearts the scenes of devastation coming from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. We’re staggered by the estimated death toll of 200,000. Our stomachs have turned as we’ve seen tens of thousands of lifeless bodies lying on the sides of the road. We’ve reacted with sorrow and horror at the deaths of thousands more who could have survived the aftermath of the earthquake if basic first aid care, antibiotics, food and water had gotten to them in time. We’ve mourned with the survivors who have lost their whole families. We’ve prayed and agonized with those who have been waiting for word from loved ones. We’ve rejoiced when in the midst of such darkness, a teenage girl or a little baby in diapers is extricated alive from the rubble and brought into the light.

Even if most of us did not think about Haiti much or at all prior to last Tuesday afternoon, few of us now can stop thinking about the island and its suffering people. Those seven seconds of destruction, and the days since, have changed all that. The images of our fellow human beings in the worst of circumstances have profoundly moved us, indelibly marked us, and begun to bring out the best in us. Americans have been responding with typical, overwhelming private generosity to the cries for help and assistance.

In this is a valuable lesson. Just as we witnessed with 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the tsunami in Malaysia, most of us cannot pass by the other side of the road — as the first two figures did in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan — when we see the catastrophic suffering of our brothers and sisters. No matter how poor they may be, no matter their geographical distance from us, no matter their race, religion or language, we immediately recognize our common humanity when disaster strikes. The sight of suffering in others, Pope John Paul II wrote in his beautiful 1984 apostolic letter “Salvifici Doloris,” unleashes love in the human heart. While it may be easy under ordinary circumstances to focus with tunnel vision on our own business, when calamities strike, in a sense they strike us all. We then recognize that others have it worse than we do and we are moved to respond with genuine compassion. It’s on these tragic occasions that the world becomes more human and that we begin to sense the profound truth that we’re all members of the same human family.

This lesson is important for us to remember as we mark today the 37th anniversary of U.S. Supreme Court’s disgraceful decision Roe versus Wade, which invented a constitutional right for mothers to end the lives of their babies in the womb. Since that decision, according to statistics coming from the abortion industry, nearly fifty million of our fellow human beings in our country alone have had their lives taken at the same vulnerable stages of growth and development in which we once were. In an age of trillion dollar budgets, it may be hard for us to comprehend the significance of such a number. With the images of the horror of 200,000 dead in Port-au-Prince very much in our minds, however, we can begin to express such a number’s true magnitude. Fifty million dead is roughly the equivalent of the death toll of 250 such earthquakes. It would take one such earthquake every day for eight months to equal the amount of those killed through abortion. Over the 37 years of the American abortion age, it would mean one such catastrophe every seven to eight weeks.

The reality is that most Americans, including most Catholics, look at abortion more or less the same way we regarded poverty in Haiti prior to 4:53 pm last Tuesday: We look at it as an issue. We may consider it an important issue, perhaps even the most important issue of all. To view it as an issue, however, is essentially to dehumanize it, changing abortion from the intentional death of tiny boy or girl to a topic for discussion, debate and activism. Before January 12, many of us knew that Haiti was a very poor country, but for most of us, Haitian poverty remained just one issue among a long list of many on the periphery of our attention. All of that changed last week when we began to see the images with our own eyes.  At that point, Haitian hardship ceased to be an issue. The Haitian people developed faces we could not forget or ignore. And we began to respond the way compassionate human beings respond to those in great trouble.

The same transition still needs to occur for most of us with respect to abortion. We need to see the tiny human faces, the “embryos” sucking their thumbs, the “fetuses” playing indoor soccer on the mother’s uterine walls. We all rightfully weep when a doctor tells a pregnant woman we know that she has miscarried the son or daughter she had been awaiting with eager longing and whose name she had probably already chosen. For anyone who has had a miscarriage or known someone dear who has suffered one, miscarriage will never be able to be just an issue: it is the tragic death of a real human being at a stage of life in which we once were. In abortion, the life of a child just as important, just as human, is not just lost but taken. We need to respond to his death just as human beings do to all such tragedies. But in order to do that, we cannot forget the little boy’s or girl’s human face, human hands and human heart. Please take a look at the photo on this page and do not forget that abortion means giving someone the choice and authority to put him or her to death.

Since Roe versus Wade, the pro-life movement has made much progress. At the time of the decision, even Supreme Court justices claimed not to know when human life begins. Such a claim would be laughed out of a high school biology class today. Thanks to ultrasounds, higher resolution digital photos and videos of obviously human children in the womb, the incredible ability of doctors to save the lives of children born months premature, and the persistence of members of the pro-life movement to cut through the spin of supporters of abortion, attempts to pretend that abortion is anything other than the brutal taking of the life of a human baby in the womb have all been exposed as sophistry. Having lost the science, all that remains is a chilling rights argument: that a mother’s rights trump her child’s in the womb, and therefore a mother should have the right to choose to have her baby put to death.

This is a losing argument — we would never give mothers the “choice” to end the lives of their newborns or terminate their troublesome teenagers — and it’s no surprise that recently there have been major shifts to the pro-life cause. A Gallup Poll last May indicated that 51 percent of Americans now call themselves pro-life, compared to 42 percent who self-describe as pro-choice. This is an incredible seven percent shift in just the last year and the first time in the history of such polling that a majority of Americans have called themselves pro-life. A Pew Research Center poll in October confirmed that shift and demonstrated that support for abortion has been plummeting among almost all demographic groups. This is good and hopeful news.

We are unfortunately incapable of preventing earthquakes because we are powerless to stop the shifting of tectonic plates that cause them. We can, however, stop the carnage flowing from the man-made destruction of abortion. To do so, we need to remember faces of the children whose lives are threatened and then begin to work as hard to save their lives as so many are working so hard to save our fellow human beings in Haiti.