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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 entails.

"...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 brief portion.

"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 Baby Killings.'

"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 child abuse."

"...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 abuse."

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 indifference.

"Recently, the United States Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect concluded that child maltreatment in America now represents a national emergency."

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 sinner.

Statements of Other Bishops on Abortion

Teachings of the Magisterium on Abortion

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