This October the Catholic Church throughout the United States will observe Respect Life Month. This annual tradition is now in its forty-first year.
Beginning October 7, Respect Life Sunday, our nation's Catholics will be called to renew their personal commitment to defend all human life, especially the most vulnerable members of the human family. They will demonstrate this commitment in a variety of ways—by participating in prayer services and educational conferences, engaging in public witness and advocacy, and helping to offer church and community services to those in need.
The theme of this year's Respect Life Program is one often expressed by Pope Benedict XVI: "Faith opens our eyes to human life in all its grandeur and beauty." He reiterated this insight during his recent visit to Lebanon: The effectiveness of our commitment to peace depends on our understanding of human life. If we want peace, let us defend life! This approach leads us to reject not only war and terrorism, but every assault on innocent human life, on men and women as creatures willed by God. … The grandeur and the raison d'être of each person are found in God alone. The unconditional acknowledgement of the dignity of every human being, of each one of us, and of the sacredness of human life, is linked to the responsibility which we all have before God. We must combine our efforts, then, to develop a sound vision of … the human person. Without this, it is impossible to build true peace.
These links among faith, the inherent dignity and rights of human beings, and a just and peaceful society were also understood by America's Founding Fathers. As George Washington remarked in his "Farewell Address": [L]et us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. … [R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
How can people coexist, much less flourish, in a society lacking the shared belief that we are called to care for those unable to care for themselves, not to neglect, abuse or kill them? Such basic moral principles have served civilization well for millennia.
Yet in recent decades, many people who influence public policy have promoted various exceptions to these principles.
Initially, medical neglect of the most vulnerable people at the beginning and end of life—those with disabilities or a potentially fatal disease—was tolerated as an exception to accepted standards of care. In time, neglect led to the acceptance of active measures to end the lives of such human beings, whose existence came to be viewed as a "burden." Now early induction and late-term abortion for "fetal anomalies," and doctor-assisted death by overdose for the sick and elderly, are not only State-approved but even publicly funded in some states.
Nationwide, even healthy unborn children are at risk of being killed at any time before birth, under Roe v. Wade.
Many fertility procedures used to help couples take home a baby result in many dead human embryos for each one who is born. When "excess" babies successfully implant and develop in a mother's or surrogate's womb, fertility specialists often propose "selective reduction," inducing a heart attack in each "excess" child. The National Institutes of Health still funds human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, which involves killing human embryos to harvest their stem cells, despite the remarkable track record of adult and cord blood stem cells in helping patients with some 72 diseases and the lack of similar results from hESCs.
Until recently, at least accommodation was made for healthcare providers who, as a matter of faith or conscience, will not take part in killing or in other procedures they believe to be gravely wrong. Yet now many government officials believe that maximum access to the full range of "reproductive rights"—abortion, sterilization, contraceptives and abortifacient drugs—trumps the right of believers to live and act according to their faith.
Under the "preventive services" mandate of the Affordable Care Act, Catholic employers and most Catholic institutions offering health coverage to their employees, will be forced to cover all these objectionable items. Under the Administration's rule, even individuals who work for these Catholic institutions will have no right to reject such coverage for themselves or their minor children.
As always, the educational materials in this year's Respect Life Program cover a broad range of topics related to the promotion of human dignity and human rights, the first of which is the right to life. Abortion remains a paramount concern, though certainly not an exclusive one, as we approach the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January 2013.
The nationwide death toll from abortions since 1973 is staggering—equal to the entire combined populations of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah and Nevada. Put another way, it is as if every man, woman and child now living in the Gulf Coast states from Texas to Florida, or every person living in the Atlantic Coast states from Maine through Virginia, had perished from the earth.
And yet the number of deaths alone cannot begin to convey the full impact of the loss to families and to our nation of each unique, unrepeatable human being, who was created with the capacity to love, to learn, to share and contribute to their families and to our country. Nor can numbers convey the depth of grief and pain experienced by the parents and grandparents of aborted children, many of whom contact the Catholic Church's post-abortion ministry (Project Rachel Ministry) for relief from their suffering, for healing, forgiveness and hope.
Can anyone claim that our country is better off now because of Roe v. Wade than it was forty years ago? The close bonds, commitments and sacrifices for others, once modeled in families and carried into neighborhoods, civic organizations and communities, have gradually eroded.
Thankfully, positive signs are emerging that give reason for hope. Polls show that Americans increasingly identify themselves as pro-life. At the state level, the shift has resulted in the passage of scores of pro-life laws in recent years, no doubt contributing to the steady decline in the number of abortions. The youth who have come of age since Bl. Pope John Paul II inaugurated World Youth Day not only embrace the cause of life, they are actively involved in promoting life through social media and services to those in need. Adult Catholics as well, exposed for years to the media's caricatures of Catholic teaching, are often surprised by the wisdom and rightness of those teachings when they are given an opportunity to learn more about them. That is why Respect Life Month and the Year of Faith are vitally important. During October, and throughout the Year of Faith announced by Pope Benedict XVI and set to begin on October 11, Catholics are invited to gain a deeper understanding of the teachings of our faith. For our part, we need to live out these teachings more faithfully, witness them more radiantly in our actions, and propose them to others in fresh and engaging ways.
By our unflinching defense of human life and religious freedom, by our witness to the transcendent nature of the human person, and by our compassionate service to our brothers and sisters in need, may we spark a renewal of love and commitment to the true good of others. Only a love that seeks to serve those most in need, whatever the personal cost to us, is strong enough to overcome a culture of death and build a civilization worthy of human beings made in God's image.
© 2012 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops