Although it sometimes is difficult for passionate pro-life advocates to avoid condemning those who favor abortion rights, national Priests For Life director Father Frank Pavone told the Proudly Pro-Life Dinner Jan. 16 that the best way to advance the cause of life is to treat opponents with Christian respect and dignity.
While admitting that his stance has prompted criticism from among pro-lifers for "collaborating" with evil, Father Pavone told 500 pro-life supporters at the annual dinner that beginning a dialogue with abortion rights activists will reap dividends for those who believe in the sanctity of life.
Father Pavone said he and Bill Baird, a prominent national abortion rights figure, recently agreed to disagree on the issues but to avoid mean-spirited attacks.
"There is no room for compromise on our positions about, in our case, the right to life and, in his case, reproductive rights," Father Pavone said. "But although we do not seek some kind of middle ground or compromise or halfway point, we acknowledge (that) as we pursue our respective causes, we must recognize the dignity of the human person who opposes us on the other side of this division. … "
"We must resolve that anything we say about the person on the other side of this cause is rooted in truth, is accurate and that we do not provide any deliberate insult to those on the other side. … One of the conclusions we've come to is that our opponent is our brother and we must get to know him."
Father Pavone urged those involved in sidewalk prayer ministry in front of abortion clinics "to get to know those people who work there and try to enter into some kind of a relationship with them so you can sit down face-to-face and talk and listen."
Father Pavone said one of the most challenging statements in the U.S. bishops' 1998 document "Living the Gospel of Life" was its call for "the humility to listen well to both friend and opponent, … learning from one another and forgetting ourselves."
"The hardest word in the phrase, 'the sanctity of every human life,' is the little word 'every,'" Father Pavone said. "As our Holy Father said in 'Evangelium Vitae,' not even the murderer loses his personal dignity. He tramples it down, he contradicts it, but he doesn't lose it. Do you know how the people of this nation who are now promoting the culture of death are going to be converted? They are going to be converted when they see someone reflect back to them the dignity of their own life."
Father Pavone said several psychiatrists have done recent studies of abortionists to try to determine what allowed them to consent to "make their living, or a part of it, by killing or dismembering living human beings." He said the "consistent pattern" that has emerged has been their own childhood history of "abuse and neglect."
"They have experienced a trampling, a crushing, a denial of the value of their own dignity," Father Pavone said. "They need us, first of all, to help them rediscover the value of their own life. That is a strange and curious challenge to us because usually we see them as people whom we must oppose because they are taking life. There is absolutely no question about (our opposition), but they need someone to reflect back to them the dignity of their own life. When they can begin to rediscover it in themselves, then perhaps they will begin to discover it in those unborn children."
Father Pavone said 12 former abortionists attended a recent pro-life retreat and committed themselves upon leaving to contacting the women on whom they had performed abortions, offering an apology and asking if they needed any medical treatment or counseling.
"This is repentance, this is purpose of amendment, this is a sign of hope," he said. "This is going to be the future of this movement. These are still our brothers and sisters. They are our blood-stained brothers and sisters. They are under a mountain of sin, and yet, who better than the body of Christ is going to be there to rescue them?"
As for criticism he is collaborating with the "enemy," Father Pavone said, "I maintain we are not dialoguing with evil. They are not the enemy. They are captive to the enemy, but they are not the enemy. So does the witness of the Church proclaim to us."
Father Pavone said despite abortion being legal for 30 years, there were hopeful signs. The good news, which is "traveling slowly," is that 40 percent of abortion clinics have closed in the last 10 years and there are fewer doctors than ever willing to perform abortions. The option of chemical abortions has "risen like a lead balloon," Father Pavone said.
"Doctors don't want to go anywhere near this practice," Father Pavone said. "They are going away from this because they don't want to be known as killers."
He said NARAL, the former National Abortion Rights Action League, has changed its name to NARAL Pro-Choice America to remove the word "abortion."
"Despite the superior financial, political and media power that the pro-choice movement has, what they have utterly failed to do is to remove the stigma from abortion," he said. "They cannot do it; they will never be able to do it."
Father Pavone said women who have had abortions were planning to give silent but powerful witness at pro-life rallies across the nation in commemoration of Roe vs. Wade. They were to carry signs that read: "I Regret My Abortion."
"They want to encourage one another and encourage the masses of people who suffer in silence who are made to feel silly for feeling sad about their abortions," Father Pavone said. "They want to say to their sisters throughout the world and to the men who are suffering post-abortion grief, 'You have a reason to grieve. Your grief is valid. You are not alone in your grief, but there is also hope.'"
Kathleen Benfield of the Louisiana Pro-Life Council was presented this year's Proudly Pro-Life Award.