Saving Lives with Love & Compassion

I was just preparing for a panel at the National Right to Life Committee annual convention today and was rereading this exchange I had recently with Austen Ivereigh, author of How to Defend the Church Without Raising Your Voice (and co-founder of Catholic Voices, which I have mentioned once or twice). I think it is very much worth further reflection:

LOPEZ: “Behind every criticism of the Church, however apparently hostile or prejudiced, is an ethical value,” you write. “The critic,” you continue, “is consciously or unconsciously appealing to that value. Issues become neuralgic, in fact, precisely because of the feeling that those core values are threatened.” Later you contend that people may be motivated by “compassion” when they argue in favor of legal abortion. But sometimes they are just being selfish, aren’t they? Pitting the stronger’s rights over the weaker’s for the sake of convenience?

IVEREIGH: It’s interesting you raise abortion as an example of where people are looking to justify selfishness. I suppose you could say the entire ethic of autonomy is an attempt to rationalize self-indulgence. But equally, you could charge the ethic of community with being an attempt to rationalize hierarchy because hierarchy benefits you. Look, anyone’s morality can be dismissed as mere scaffolding of the will, but I don’t think that’s how it works. I think people’s deep-seated convictions are reached over time, in the little choices they make — “this, good; that, bad” — and what they end up with, sometimes, is a lopsided, or narrow, matrix, especially if they’ve reached that without the benefit of a faith or a strong community.

#ad#But the moral conviction on which that narrow matrix is built is sincere. A few days ago in London, I heard Linda Couri, who was a leading light in Planned Parenthood in Chicago until she experienced a profound conversion to Catholicism and the pro-life cause. She wanted us to know that, even when she was very wrong, her intentions were good, and her dedication to Planned Parenthood was noble: She genuinely believed she was helping others, and so, too, were the other women who worked there; they weren’t “killing babies” but “serving humanity.” The life of the unborn child was considered a necessary, reasonable sacrifice — the collateral damage of safeguarding a woman’s autonomy. She certainly wouldn’t have seen herself as selfish; she took a pay cut to work for Planned Parenthood, in the way that people do when they go to work for charities.

In this case, the value of the life of the unborn had been played down, in order to maintain another value — that of autonomy. A human life was sacrificed — is being sacrificed, on a massive scale, every day — in order to uphold a “good.” The point is, if we do not recognize that “good” — the positive intention, or Haidt’s elephant — then we will simply be talking past people. Linda Couri’s story — and it’s a really compelling account — is of moving to this broader vision, one that allowed her to admit realities (yes, these are human lives I am helping to kill) in a forgiving community.

She stresses how important it is to be in relationship with those with whom we disagree, and offer them hospitality — a space in which to grow into a greater view. I think that’s our task as Catholic Voices on the abortion question: to name the realities that the pro-choice lobby skirts over, to witness to the humanity of the unborn and to point to a broader matrix, but never to demonize or denigrate those who don’t share that awareness. Never judge the intentions of others — only their conclusions and their actions.

Abby Johnson’s testimony in her book, Unplanned, of course, is quite helpful here (and interview with her here). We need to be loving, welcoming, forgiving as we witness to the humanity of the unborn. That is how you open hearts and save lives.

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