In 1980, Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in “Kramer vs. Kramer.” The grateful recipient began his acceptance speech by saying, “I’d like to thank ... (pregnant pause) ... my parents for not practicing birth control.” As expected, the line drew gales of laughter from the audience. It was as funny as it was unexpected. But it does bring to mind a flurry of more sober thoughts.
Contraception, by 1980, had become a first line of defense against unwanted pregnancies. Thanks to his parents avoiding such a pregnancy preventative, Hoffman’s conception was not thwarted. The second line of defense is abortion. It would be a faux pas of considerable magnitude for a future honoree to say, “I’d like to thank my parents for not aborting me.” This line would not have drawn laughter. It would have rendered the audience most uncomfortable. Hollywood does not want to think of abortion as killing someone — especially a potential Oscar winner.
At another time and in a different milieu, an award winner might have thanked God for giving him life. The two lines of defense against life — contraception and abortion — shift the authorship of life away from God and to the parents. What a heavy responsibility it must be, though, to be the sole authors of life. Meditating on the effects of contraception, the psychotherapist Rollo May has put it this way: “For no longer does ‘God’ decide we are to have children; we do. And who has even begun to comprehend the meaning of that tremendous fact?”
Blessed John Paul II has drawn attention to the two radically different meanings of the word “my.” It is a difference that parallels the Latin possessive and partitive genitives. When I say, “This is my pen,” I mean I own the pen and, in doing so, I am not infringing on any rights the pen might have. In other words, I possess the pen. On the other hand, when I say, “This is my country,” it is clear I am not claiming ownership of the country, but merely indicating I belong to the country as a part of it.
If God is the author of life, then parents do not possess their children, but are stewards entrusted to care for them. Contraception and abortion have a way of eclipsing God and turning children into objects of parental ownership.
May has observed, in therapy, particularly among professional people, that parents who have had one child assume a great temptation to overprotect that child. The burden placed on the child, according to May, is “like a prince born into a royal family,” carrying “a weight for which children were never made.” The child, of course, has his own destiny, one that is known better to God than to mom or dad.
The Pontifical Council for the Family issued a Charter of the Rights of the Family in 1983. It underscores the significance of God in overseeing marriage and the family: “The Catholic Church, aware that the good of the person, of society, and of the Church herself passes by way of the family, has always held it part of her mission to proclaim to all the plan of God instilled in human nature concerning marriage and the family, to promote these two institutions and to defend them against all those who attack them.”
Contraception and abortion tend to create a mentality in which parents assume their roles more as possessors of their children rather than as guardians or stewards. We are right to thank our parents for their role in giving us life, but the highest thanks should be reserved for God, whose place should remain paramount.
Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International.