My youngest daughter went in January with her classmates on an overnight bus ride for the 40th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. All of my children have made this trip in high school. It may start out as a great way to miss a few days of school, but the experience becomes far more powerful than just an adventure away from mom and dad. The march is always a great testament to the next generation in the fight for life.
It makes perfect sense. After all, one-third of my children’s peers were never allowed to be born. More than other generations, they have a dog in this fight, because in a very real sense they are all abortion survivors. In a country that says it is legal to extinguish human life deemed “unwanted,” “inconvenient” or “unplanned,” they all could have been victims.
The battle against abortion has dominated our attention for two generations, and it is a tribute to so many dedicated pro-life witnesses that it shows no sign of abating. In some ways, this is even a more powerful witness than victory itself, for the stubborn resiliency of the pro-life movement is itself a testament to human dignity.
This witness, however, must not stop at birth. One of the genius insights of Catholicism is that the opposition to abortion is part of a fabric of Catholic moral thought that is interwoven and integrated into a consistent philosophical whole. I like to refer to it as the ecology of Catholic moral thought, for just as the natural order is a beautifully ordered set of interdependent life forms, so too are our teachings on life.
We believe that we are made in the image and likeness of God, that each one of us is known and loved by God, and that there is an innate and objective human dignity to each one of us that cannot be removed because we are labeled “fetus” or “migrant,” “handicapped” or “unproductive,” “homosexual” or “felon.”
This is the radical nature of this teaching, which, of course, is forgotten all the time and relearned all the time.
This belief in the inherent dignity of each human being is why Catholics can be found ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the most despised and feared.
All of this applies to the end of life as well. We say that respect for life extends “from conception to natural death.” The Church is firmly opposed to euthanasia, the forced removal of those who are “unwanted” or “inconvenient.” Yet the Church does not believe in using extraordinary means to preserve life, nor does it see “Sister Death” as something to be feared and fled from.
The recent tragic news story of Jahi McMath, the 13-year-old girl who went in for a tonsillectomy and was pronounced brain dead is agonizing for any parent to read. Yet it is also heartbreaking that her family is keeping her body functioning on machines in the hope that “she will wake up.”
There is, in our respect for life, a respect also for the finiteness of our earthly existence and a faith that this is not all there is. The life God gives us is to be respected and cherished. We are not to become the arbiters of that life, nor avoid ordinary means for maintaining it such as food and water.
Neither are we bound to use all means to keep that body alive. The latter is something that modern women and men struggle with: the availability of modern technology does not mean that we must utilize those means to preserve the semblance of life.
If paid attention to, nature will teach us the limits of technology and the irremediable finiteness of our earthly existence. If paid attention to, the Church teaches us the virtue of a good death with the unshakable faith that something far greater awaits us.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.