They Call It 'Choice'
Homily by Cardinal O'Connor
Sunday Mass, St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York
October 4, 1998
Perhaps there are few people in our country who are given less credit for
their contributions to world culture, to the music, to the arts, to poetry and
to literature than the Polish people. Among their many contributions is, of
course, this great pope of this century, Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla. In my
brief two days in Rome during this past week I had the opportunity again to be
with the pope and was strengthened by his very presence. Since I had already
read the Scriptures in advance for today, I could not but think of him in these
words of the Second Letter of St. Paul to Timothy [2 Tm. 1:6-8,13-14]
"...Never be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord ... with the strength
which comes from God bear your share of the hardship which the gospel
"...Guard the rich deposit of faith with the help of the Holy Spirit who
dwells within us."
On the 16th of October our Holy Father will celebrate his 20th anniversary as
pope. It is still extremely difficult to believe that this is a man who from the
very outset has been ridiculed, called contemptuously a "Polish peasant." There
were some who said, "What does he know? He has spent his life behind the Iron
Curtain," ignoring his Doctorate in Philosophy, his Doctorate in Theology, his
years spent in Rome, this man of limitless culture, of extraordinary integrity,
this man who endured the ardors of breaking rock under the Nazi regime, this man
who went on to become the world figure that he is today.
This morning's New York Post gives an excellent summary of the way in which
he has spent these past 20 years. Please God he will spend many more in similar
fashion. No one, perhaps, has articulated the truth more clearly, more
courageously, more reflectively of these words, "Never be ashamed of your
testimony to our Lord. With the strength which comes from God bear your share of
the hardship which the gospel entails." This pope has been particularly
forthright, never, never failing in his annunciation of what he has called the
Gospel of Life.
Today is Respect Life Sunday throughout the United States. I was pleased to
receive a letter from a Dr. Leon Nadrowski, a medical doctor and clinical
professor of surgery, at State University College of Medicine. Permit me to read
"At the General Pulaski Day Parade, this Sunday, October 4th, signs will be
carried read 'General Pulaski died for our Freedom, but not for Partial Birth
Baby Killings' and 'Pope John Paul and Cardinal O'Connor Decry Partial Birth
"At your Sunday Mass, prior to the parade I sincerely hope that you will
mention the horror of these Partial Birth Baby Killings, which you have
correctly described [although sadly described] as 'murder.'"
I would like to reflect, however briefly, on what is commonly called a
national plague, the epidemic of child abuse. In Chicago, for example the public
guardian for neglected or abused children, Patrick T. Murphy, says that "more
than 25 years ago, there were about 4,000 abuse and neglect cases in juvenile
court a year. Now there are more than 30,000."
Here in our own city, the Daily News runs the following article: "Girl's
death troubles city."
"In the filthy halls of Shayna Bryant's Bronx apartment building, the frail
little girl with the pretty smile and the white splotches on her arms was known
as 'the sick one.'
"But around the city yesterday, that epithet was being applied to the
4-year-old's junkie parents, charged with murder in the vicious beating death of
their daughter, one of five kids."
The front page of the New York Post reads, "Kids the City Couldn't Save,"
with two pictures: "Ditaya Douglas, age 2 years, cause of death -- plunged into
tub of scalding water; Shayna Bryant, age 4 years, cause of death -- burned and
bruised repeatedly. Five die at hands of parents or guardians this year, say
police. Officials took 3 victims from their homes and later returned them."
Another article with a big headline in the New York Post, "Kids Who Never
Stood a Chance -- The Bryant Case; The Douglas Case. Chronicle of crushed and
wasted little lives -- The Rosado Case." It says, "It's hard to believe a dad
could raise his hand to a cherub like doomed 3-month-old Daniel Rosado, but
that's what cops say Daniel Baez did, shaking and striking the infant after
ordering the baby's 16-year old mom from the room so he could vent his vicious
rage in private."
We read about The O'Doherty Case, "It would not have been so bad if junkie
couple Kevin and Kelli O'Doherty had been content to simply ruin their own lives
with heroin. But shocked cops say the father gave daughter Leah a dose of
methadone to make her sleep -- a dose so strong, the 4-year-old never woke up."
Another headline reads, "Slaughter of the Innocent. Rudy Demands Answers on
Killing of 3 Kids."
The headline of an editorial in the Daily News reads: "Poverty doesn't cause
"...A drug-addicted mother allegedly punished her 7-year-old daughter by
forcing her to sit on a hot radiator, severely burning the child's legs,
buttocks and hands. Shocked New Yorkers immediately turned to the beleaguered
child welfare agency. How could this happen? Where was the caseworker?
"To his credit, child welfare chief Nicholas Scoppetta -- who has done much
to untangle the knots of secrecy that bound his agency -- was quick to provide
answers. In both cases, there were lapses.
"But when blame for child abuse is parceled out, remember who must shoulder
the heaviest share -- drug-addicted parents, brutal and/or absentee fathers,
unwed mothers overwhelmed by the enormous pressures of single parenthood.
"In other words, blame behavior, not bureaucracy. Although it has become
unfashionable to apply the moral verities of past generations, the painful fact
is that children do suffer the sins of their parents. When drugs replace
religion, family and work (these are not just quaint, outmoded virtues), the
result is inevitable. About 80 percent of the city's abused children come from
drug-saturated homes. Studies show that there is no better predictor of child
Another headline reads, "Why we are losing the battle against child-abuse
deaths," followed by an article by Dr. Vincent J. Fontana.
"...There are thousands of children out here among us who are growing up in a
troubled, dysfunctional family environment that is threatening, unnatural,
unstable, unloving and hostile to the development of a whole human being.
"Child-maltreatment reports in this country are increasing at the rate of 5
to 10 percent each year. In 1992, more than 2.9 million cases of child abuse
were reported to child-protection agencies in the United States. An estimated
4,000 children end up dying in this country each year because there is no one to
protect them from being abused.
"...Across the United States, child maltreatment continues undiminished as a
result of bureaucratic incompetence, political hypocrisy and public
"Recently, the United States Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect
concluded that child maltreatment in America now represents a national
These are all shocking and frightening and presumably valid figures.
Certainly I understand what these writers are saying, what these newspapers are
reporting. Indeed I applaud them. We are talking about many of the problems that
result in, or at least are provocative of, child abuse. But there is not a
single word, in a single article, about what I might call "irreversible child
abuse," the destruction of one and a half million babies every year in their
mothers' wombs. Isn't that child abuse? It is child abuse in the ultimate form.
We are permitted to read these almost lurid descriptions of child abuse, of
burnings with cigarettes and so on. But we are immediately criticized when we
mention abortion. I shall almost inevitably be criticized for reading what I am
about to read that was provided to me by the Dr. Nadrowski whom I mentioned at
the outset. He says:
"...Here's how a nurse at a Dayton, Ohio, clinic describes a 1993
partial-birth abortion on a 26 1/2-week-old fetus: 'Dr. [Martin] Haskell went in
with forceps and grabbed the baby's legs and pulled them down into the birth
canal. Then he delivered the baby's body and arms -- everything but the head.
The baby's little fingers were clasping and unclasping and his feet were
kicking. Then the doctor stuck scissors through the back of his head and the
baby's arms jerked out in a flinch, a startled reaction, like a baby does when
he thinks he might fall. Then the doctor opened up the scissors, stuck a
high-powered suction tube through the opening and sucked the baby's brains out.
Now the baby went completely limp."
Child abuse? Would we dare to say that child abuse should be a matter of
choice? Would we dare to use the words "pro-choice" for a woman who burns her
child with cigarettes or beats the child, or throws the child out of a window?
Would we dare to say, that is a woman's "choice"?
As we noted, Patrick Murphy of Chicago said that there are now 30,000 cases
of child abuse annually in Chicago. Multiply that by 500 times and you have the
one and a half million cases of abortion annually. Child abuse? There are some
who deny that the unborn is truly a child, but can anyone deny that a
child almost out of its mother's birth canal and has scissors plunged into its
head, that this is not a child? Pro-choice? We have a choice to do that? The
Congress votes against partial-birth abortion and the president vetoes
the vote and the Congress fails to override the veto on the grounds of choice.
What words can do, what words have done in our land!
There is an illness called echolalia, characteristic of some children who are
autistic. They just keep repeating over and over again certain words that they
have heard. That is what has happened in our country, a repetition of
pro-choice, pro-choice, pro-choice. "Who are you to deny a woman her choice, or
a man for that matter?" Well then, do we give choice to child abusers? Who are
we to tell a couple, an individual, a family, on drugs or not on drugs, "You
have no right to abuse your child?" "Of course, I have the right, this is the
land of choice! I can do anything I please!"
I deliberately saved this next item for the closing of this homily in order
that it may be remembered most particularly by anyone in need. In the name of
the Church and of all humanity, I have repeatedly condemned what we believe to
be the horror of killing the unborn; at the same time, I have never condemned,
nor has the Church condemned, any woman who has had an abortion. It is the
responsibility of the Church and of all humanity to do everything possible to
come to the aid of a woman who is under pressure to have an abortion. For this
reason, on the 15th of October in 1984, 1 announced from the pulpit of this
cathedral, and I have repeatedly stated ever since although this gets little
press, that any woman, of any religious persuasion, of any
ethnic background, of any color, who comes to the Archdiocese of New York
under pressure to have an abortion and not having any money, we will give her
complete medical and hospital care free of charge. If she wishes to keep her
baby after the baby is born our legal staff will help her do so, or they will
help her to have the baby adopted.
Since I first made that announcement more than 14 years ago, many thousands
of women have saved their babies and have saved their own lives availing
themselves of this opportunity. It is not for us to condemn a woman under
pressure. It is not for us to condemn parents who, thinking they are doing the
best thing for a young girl, encourage her to have an abortion. We do not want
to condemn them; we want to help. If any woman has had an abortion, we want to
help her pick up the pieces to get her life started all over again. This is one
of the reasons we have the Sisters of Life who are totally devoted to the cause
of life. For two thousand years the Church has condemned only the sin, never the
Statements of Other Bishops on Abortion
Teachings of the Magisterium on Abortion