The dignity of human life: Challenges and progress today

Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director, Priests for Life, Pastoral Director, Rachel's Vineyard Ministries and Silent No More Awareness Campaign
Publication Date: September 20, 2013

Talk given by Fr. Frank Pavone at the September 17-20, 2013 Conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Family in observance of the 30th Anniversary of the Holy See’s “Charter of the Rights of the Family.”


It is a pleasure to share these reflections with you today and to participate in this conference, and I do so with fond recollections of my own time of service as an official of the Pontifical Council for the Family under the Presidency of His Eminence Alfonso Cardinal Lopez-Trujillo. I bring you today the prayerful greetings of our entire association known as Priests for Life and Gospel of Life Ministries. In particular I bring you the greetings of Janet Morana, our Executive Director, who has also had the privilege of presenting at a previous conference of this Pontifical Council for the Family, and Dr. Alveda King, our fulltime director of African-American Outreach, and the niece of Martin Luther King, Jr. All of us are especially grateful to His Excellency, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, for his leadership and for the collaboration which our Association enjoys with this dicastery.

The Rights of the Family and the Right to Life

Brothers and sisters, at the heart and foundation of the defense of the rights of the family is the defense of the right to life. At the very soul of the promotion, celebration, and service of the family is the promotion, celebration, and service of life itself.

In Article 4 of the Charter of the Rights of the Family, we read, "Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception."

In the foundational encyclical Evangelium Vitae, moreover, we read the reasons for which Blessed John Paul II, who throughout his pontificate addressed the numerous threats to human life and dignity in our world, nonetheless concentrated his attention in that document on the evils of abortion and euthanasia. He wrote,

"Here though we shall concentrate particular attention on another category of attacks, affecting life in its earliest and in its final stages, attacks which present new characteristics with respect to the past and which raise questions of extraordinary seriousness. It is not only that in generalized opinion these attacks tend no longer to be considered as "crimes"; paradoxically they assume the nature of "rights", to the point that the State is called upon to give them legal recognition and to make them available through the free services of health-care personnel. Such attacks strike human life at the time of its greatest frailty, when it lacks any means of self-defence. Even more serious is the fact that, most often, those attacks are carried out in the very heart of and with the complicity of the family—the family which by its nature is called to be the "sanctuary of life"." (n. 11)

Five years after the Holy See issued the Charter of the Rights of the Family, Blessed John Paul II issued the Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, and reminded us that our integrity and credibility in defending the rights of the family depends on the determination we have to defend the underlying right to life. He writes,

"[T]he common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights -- for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture -- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination." (n. 38)

Why is this the case?

First of all, it is clear from logic that the loss of the foundation implies the loss of the house. The destruction of the right to life contains within itself the destruction of the rights of the family, religious liberty, and every other human right.

This is also evident from the psychological sciences. The damage abortion does to the entire family is being revealed through the research of psychologists and psychiatrists. Perhaps no person in the world has done more research on the impact of abortion than Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Phillip Ney. He declares without reservation that there is nothing more damaging to the family than abortion. He points out that an abortion distorts the mother’s ability – and indeed the ability of the human species – to respond properly to the helpless cry of its own young. Having met that helpless cry with the violence of abortion, we are less able to respond to that cry the next time, not only in regard to the unborn child, but to other members of the human family.

The foundational importance of defending life is also clear from a consideration of nature of the state itself. As Evangelium Vitae declares, when the state legitimizes abortion or euthanasia, it no longer is the common home where all can be safe. Instead, it becomes a tyrant state, all rights become negotiable, and the disintegration of the state itself begins. In such a climate, the family and its rights cannot be either secure or even intelligible. As Blessed Teresa of Calcutta declared, "the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion."

Signs and Strategies for Progress

As someone who has worked against abortion since 1976 and has done so fulltime since 1993, I can tell you today that I have never been more confident that the days of legal abortion are numbered. The signs of progress and the motives for this confidence are too numerous to even mention in our limited time, but let me trace two dynamics for you briefly that begin to tell the story. You might call them a dual collision course, and they are working themselves out in the courts as well as in public opinion.

This twofold collision course is based on the twofold lie behind legal abortion, namely, that

a) what is destroyed in abortion is not a child, and
b) abortion carries a benefit for women.

The Destruction of the Child

Former United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor once famously said that the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973 was "on a collision course with itself." On the one hand, the decision gave the states the right to protect unborn children after viability while insisting on the right to abort in all cases in the first two trimesters. On the other hand, the age of viability, thanks to modern science, continues to move earlier and earlier.

Ironically, it is in the decades during which we have learned more about the unborn child than at any other time in human history that we have seen the abandonment of legal protection of that child. Yet now, a massive cognitive dissonance is developing, as medical science calls the unborn our "newest patient," as fetal therapy and surgery continue to develop, as the imaging of the unborn is perfected and even their psychology and learning patterns are better understood. And in the law itself, we see an embryonic moment emerging. In the United States, for instance, federal law now protects children born alive at any stage, even as a result of a failed abortion, protects the unborn from the specific procedure of partial-birth abortion, and recognizes unborn children as victims if they are killed in the commission of a federal crime. This latter law is also in place in numerous states, leading to the curious contradiction that if a pregnant woman in a car on her way to an abortion clinic to have her child killed is struck by a drunk driver and the baby dies as a result, that drunk driver can be charged with the death of that same child whom she was about to have legally killed.

The public is awakening to the fact that when we allow the killing of one group of human beings, we endanger all the rest. The recent trial and conviction of abortionist Kermit Gosnell has focused new attention on late term abortion and on the killing of babies outside the womb in abortion clinics.

Along with various members of our Priests for Life team, I was present in the courtroom for the Gosnell trial. He is now serving three life sentences for having killed three children who were born alive. Never in the courtroom was there a doubt raised that these were human children and that he killed them. The argument was all about where they were located when they were killed. The absurdity of this was profound, as if a trial were underway for a man who killed his wife, and the sole point of the argument was whether he killed her in their house or out on the street.

Was abortionist Kermit Gosnell crazy, or was he simply following the logic of legal abortion? After all, Roe v. Wade did not claim that the unborn child was not human; it simply declared that, whether human or not, the unborn is not a person under the law. Hence the court taught that some human beings are not necessarily human persons. Controversial "ethicist" Peter Singer said long ago: “[T]he location of the baby inside or outside the womb cannot make such a crucial moral difference" ("On Letting Handicapped Babies Die"), and that to be consistent, there are "only two possibilities," namely, "oppose abortion, or allow infanticide" (Rethinking Life and Death, p.210).

In March of 2013, a Planned Parenthood lobbyist named Alisa LaPolt Snow testified at a Florida legislative hearing, and was asked this question: "If a baby is born on a table as a result of a botched abortion, what would Planned Parenthood want to have happen to that child that is struggling for life?” She responded, "We believe that any decision that’s made should be left up to the woman, her family, and the physician.” (

And about a year earlier, the Journal of Medical Ethics published an article by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva entitled, "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?" (February 23, 2012). The authors state, “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.”

So when the public is horrified that Kermit Gosnell snipped the spinal cords of babies born alive, or when they are horrified that he performed abortions in the final months of pregnancy, they are being horrified not by some anomaly, but by the abortion mindset itself, that simply exalts choice above life.

And here we learn how to begin overcoming that mindset: bring it down from the abstract to the concrete. Show and describe the actual evidence of what abortion does, submit it to the court of public opinion, and bring it into the court of law.

We are seeing progress in this arena.

A law was passed in South Dakota in 2005, and subsequently upheld in federal court, that actually requires the abortionist to tell the woman who comes for an abortion that the procedure destroys a "whole, separate, unique, living human being". Other states have likewise passed or introduced the same legislation. While considering this law, the court concluded that evidence like this, presented by the state, “suggests that the biological sense in which the embryo or fetus is whole, separate, unique and living should be clear in context to a physician, and Planned Parenthood submitted no evidence to oppose that conclusion.”

One of the things that abortion advocates complained about through this process was that the state should not be allowed to force a doctor to convey an ideological message (like pro-life). But the Eighth Circuit court pointed out that there’s a difference between that and requiring the doctor to provide truthful and accurate information about the abortion. The fact that such information may lead the person to choose life over abortion does not, the Court said, make it unconstitutional to require doctors to provide such information.

We also learn a lot from the ban on the partial-birth abortion procedure, passed by the US Congress, signed into law by the President, upheld by the Supreme Court, and passed also on the state level in various places. This law prohibits the procedure in which the very process of delivering the child is used as the instrument of death.

Prior to the Supreme Court's decision upholding the ban in 2007, to which we will return in a moment, there were various federal court trials in which abortion supporters tried to claim that the ban was unconstitutionally vague and over-broad, because some of the other abortion procedures were in fact so similar to the one being banned that the doctor would not know whether he had committed illegal activity or not.

But to make this argument, the abortion supporters had to have practicing abortionists testify, under oath, as to the details of these various abortion procedures, not only the partial-birth abortion, but also the D and E (dismemberment) abortion. In this very testimony, the public, the legislators, and the courts had the most powerful education ever about the gruesome details of abortion, and this education has led people away from unqualified support of abortion.

In particular, the whole consideration of fetal pain became part of the discussion and has led to further legislative developments. Consider the following exchange that took place in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, between Judge Richard Casey and abortionist Timothy Johnson. (Johnson was testifying in the case National Abortion Federation, et. al. v. Ashcroft, which dealt with the ban on partial-birth abortion. The date was March 31, 2004.):

THE COURT: If you are all finished let me just ask you a couple questions, Dr. Johnson. I heard you talk a lot today about dismemberment D&E procedure, second trimester; does the fetus feel pain?
THE WITNESS: I guess I --
THE COURT: There are studies, I m told, that says they do. Is that correct? …
THE WITNESS: I'm aware of fetal behavioral studies that have looked at fetal responses to noxious stimuli.
THE COURT: Does it ever cross your mind when you are doing a dismemberment?
THE WITNESS: I guess whenever I --
THE COURT: Simple question, Doctor. Does it cross your mind?
THE WITNESS: Does the fetus having pain cross your mind?
THE COURT: Never crossed your mind.

While fetal pain doesn't cross the mind of the abortionist, it is more and more on the minds of legislators and the public. In the last few years, ten of the states in the USA have passed laws protecting unborn children from 20 weeks of development forward, based on the strong scientific consensus that by that time the baby feels pain. And even on the federal level, the US House of Representatives passed the same measure, though the Senate has yet to vote on it. The courts have recognized that the states have interests in protecting life in the womb, and in fact can define for themselves what those interests are. In this case, the stated interest is to protect unborn children from pain.

Abortion advocates want abortion to have the privileged status accorded by Courts to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Abortion advocates insist that courts use very strict standards for constitutional review of any legislative efforts to respect unborn human life, and that if a law regulating abortion might be unconstitutional even in a rare and hypothetical circumstance, the whole law should be thrown out. In its 2007 Gonzales decision upholding the ban on partial-birth abortion, the US Supreme Court rejected this approach. The Court sent the message that it will not strike down abortion regulations simply because they are abortion regulations. Nor can the courts strike down abortion laws based merely on abortion proponents’ speculative claims. The Court reaffirmed that states have legitimate interests in protecting fetal life and the health of women.

In US Constitutional history, the rights of groups that have been oppressed – such as African Americans, children, women, and workers – have eventually been vindicated. As Courts heard more evidence of the harm that was done to these groups, they reversed prior Court decisions. From slavery to workers’ rights to segregation to child labor laws, eventually the Courts get it right. Now it is time for the “embryonic moment," the recognition that the rights of the Constitution apply to the unborn child.

The Destruction of the Woman

There is a second collision course happening, namely, between the claim that abortion helps women and the evidence that abortion hurts women.

From the beginning of their efforts to legalize abortion, its supporters have claimed that it benefits women. As the evidence of the humanity of the child increased, this claim became more important for them to emphasize. When the Supreme Court in its 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision upheld Roe v. Wade, the Court actually said that even if Roe had been wrongly decided, so many women had come to rely on the availability of abortion, that now the Court could not reverse itself without undermining its own credibility.

And hence did it undermine its own credibility.

But ironically, the very voices that abortion supporters have told us to listen to for decades -- the voices of women -- are saying now that they regret their abortions. A tidal wave of personal experience is being heard across the globe, experience that says abortion did not solve a problem but only created new ones, that abortion does not spring from freedom of choice but rather from the feeling that one has no freedom and no choice, that abortion did not help but hurt.

These women, as well as fathers of the aborted children, have now organized themselves to speak out more loudly and clearly.

I am privileged to serve as the Pastoral Director of the “Silent No More Awareness Campaign” ( – a joint project of Priests for Life and Anglicans for Life. This Campaign provides these women and men an opportunity to share their testimonies. The campaign is active throughout North America and in several other countries of the world.

The Campaign’s goal is first of all to extend the opportunity for healing to all who have lost a child to abortion. The Campaign likewise aims to raise awareness of the harm abortion does to women, and to provide, to those who are ready to do so, the opportunity to share publicly their testimony of pain and of healing.

These testimonies are shared in Churches, on television and radio programs, on the internet, and at public gatherings all around the world. Others, who regret their abortion but do not feel called to speak publicly, are nevertheless letting themselves be counted by registering anonymously with the Campaign. This can be done online at

And just as we have seen the evidence of the child's humanity making its way into deliberations and decisions of the courts, so we see the same in regard to the evidence of the harm abortion does to women. To refer again to the US Supreme Court's 2007 Gonzales decision, the Court made reference to the many testimonies of the women who regret their abortion. In fact, working in conjunction with various pro-life groups, we had submitted many of these testimonies to the courts in the form of affidavits. The Court wrote as follows,

“It seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained….Severe depression and loss of esteem can follow…"

In pointing out that precise statistical evidence was not available, but that it was nevertheless relevant, the Court signaled that the gathering and measuring of these testimonies, as well as the continuation of post-abortion research, is an important way to move forward in dealing with abortion.

This, in fact, points to an overall strategy, whether for the general public, the Churches, the courts or the legislators, namely, that we have to re-frame the abortion debate and move it from a supposed conflict between a mother and her unborn child to a conflict between the family on one side -- mother, father, and children together -- and an unscrupulous, unregulated abortion industry and its abortionists on the other.

Laws that require informed consent, parental involvement, waiting periods, and clinic regulations accomplish this re-framing, because they embrace the interests of the mother and indeed the family, and point out the ways that the abortion industry threatens those interests.

In fact, at the heart of this approach is the question of whether abortion is medicine at all. Dr. Philip Ney points out,

"The practice of good medicine entails performing only those procedures, which are:
i) Indicated. There must be something wrong; some recognized disease to warrant doing this treatment.
ii) Beneficial. There must be scientifically established benefits in the long run of the patient’s life.
iii) Free of harm. There are very few procedures that don’t have some detriment. Most are temporary and borne well by patients who foresee the benefit.
iv) The last resort. Every form of less invasive, more reversible treatments must be seriously tried and have failed first."
(Abortion, Conscience Clauses, And the Practice of Medicine,, December 2, 2010)

He mentions six other criteria as well, and then goes on to observe, "The current practice of abortion, meets none of these criteria. It is bad medicine or more accurately is not medicine." He sums it up by saying, "Women choosing to have an abortion are not patients because: pregnancy is not an illness, their choice is not an indication for treatment, their distress is not a disease."

The way in which court decisions like Roe v. Wade portray abortion, as inherently a medical decision made between the woman and her physician, is completely devoid of reality. In fact, her physician has nothing to do with it, the reasons are not medical, and the abortion clinics tend to be the an unregulated industry treating women in abusive ways. As I always say, you can't practice vice virtuously. If your conscience is so seared that you can justify running a child-killing business, then you can justify falsifying medical records, committing financial improprieties, failing to sterilize equipment, allowing unsanitary conditions, engaging in sexual abuse of patients, and much more.

We have been pointing out these abuses for decades, and the recent trial of Kermit Gosnell brought these abuses to the forefront of the public's attention. On display in the courtroom were the filthy curettes, the dirty oxygen mask, and the ultrasound equipment so outdated that medical technicians brought into the courtroom did not know how to use it.

This case has bolstered our efforts on several fronts.

First, we have to enforce existing clinic regulation laws. In the case of Gosnell, no officials from the state set foot in his clinic for seventeen years. Abuses could have been stopped much sooner if they had. In numerous other cases, we have had abortion clinics closed and abortionists put in jail by teaching people -- including clinic workers themselves -- how to look for the signs of illegal activity, report it to the medical boards and state health departments, and demand enforcement of existing laws. Abortion may be legal, but malpractice is not, and nor are countless other abuses.

Second, where clinic regulation laws do not exist, they need to be introduced and passed. Even people who consider themselves 'pro-choice' presume that there is emergency medical equipment on hand in abortion clinics, that those who administer anesthesia are qualified to do so, and that an abortion is performed only when the woman is actually pregnant. Yet these presumptions are contradicted regularly by the cases we uncover.

Third, building on both the damage that abortion itself does and the additional damage resulting from the unregulated abortion industry, we as a ministry have made the case for recalling abortion. The word "Recall" in English has two meanings. One meaning is to remember, as do those who have had abortions and recall its pain and damage, and the other meaning is for the government to take back a product or service that has proven harmful or dangerous. Our Executive Director, Janet Morana, has built this case in her recent book, Recall Abortion. (See

We have also intensified the effort to call on clinic workers to be whistleblowers, pointing out that a key lesson in the Gosnell case is not simply that he went to prison but that several of his employees did because of their cooperation in the wrongdoing. So we are pointing out to clinic workers that they have a choice to be either a witness or a defendant. More are coming forward to reveal the illegal activity going on in the abortion industry, and their motives are principally to protect themselves.

Then, of course, there are more and more people leaving the abortion industry because they are converting to the pro-life cause. Just prior to coming to this conference, I conducted another healing retreat for former abortionists and clinic workers who have become pro-life and are seeking the healing of the Lord. There is a specific protocol for the psychological and spiritual healing of such persons, and they have even formed an international association called the Society of Centurions. This name comes from the fact that the Roman Centurion at the cross of Jesus repented upon his death. "Surely, this was an innocent man!" Similarly, these former abortion workers, who made a living by killing children, have said, "Surely, these are innocent lives, and we are sorry."

The flow of conversions is in the direction of death to life. Since when, for instance, have you heard of an organization of former pregnancy resource center directors who have repented of saving babies and are now pro-abortion? It just doesn’t happen. You don't get tired of saving lives; you do get tired of killing them.


Let me conclude by presenting you with the vision to which we are moving closer each day. Through the Silent No More Awareness Campaign, we have women sharing their testimonies of pain and healing after abortion. These are powerful to watch. But even more powerful is when the man joins her, publicly repenting of his failure to protect both her and her child. We also have the child's grandparents coming for healing, repenting of having pressured their daughter to abort. Imagine them joining the baby's mom and dad, together repenting and giving witness. And then, we can bring along with them the friend of that mom and dad, repenting of his or her failure to give them the hope and strength to choose life. And finally, imagine, joining all of these repentant individuals at a podium or on a stage, the former abortionist, the Centurion, expressing his or her repentance for having brought to that family the single most devastating wound it can receive, the abortion of its youngest, weakest member.

This is the vision of the family, the sanctuary of life, united in life-giving repentance and life-giving witness to the Lord of Life. As we celebrate the anniversary of the Charter of the Rights of the Family, let us commit ourselves to making this vision a reality, in a new culture of life! God bless you.

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