Deciding for Life

Joseph Louis Cardinal Bernardin
Archbishop of Chicago
Publication Date: October 01, 1989

Message for Respect Life Sunday

This year as the Church in the United States celebrates Respect Life Sunday, some observations on the notion of freedom are in order.

We Americans cherish freedom. To act on our own judgements and enjoy the responsible use of freedom accords more with human dignity than does being pressured or coerced into action by outside forces. Personal freedom enables us, in harmony with others, to pursue those goods and values which enhance and enable human lives.

It is good to keep in mind, though, that freedom is not an absolute value. At times some, in their exercise of personal freedom diminish the freedom and dignity of others. At other times, vulnerable groups in society need their personal freedoms protected. In both in government has an obligation to limit one group's use of its freedom so another group may legitimately exercise its freedom.

A common example illustrates this point. Governments at various levels have passed ordinances requiring reserved sections in parking lots for persons with disabilities. Although this restricts the liberty of those who are not disabled and who would like to park in those sections, the vast majority of people accept this type of restrictive legislation. It is easy to see how reserved parking areas enable those with disabilities to have easier access to facilities. Government intervention restricts the personal liberties of some without demeaning them as persons in order to uphold the personal liberty of the disabled and provide them with an opportunity to lead fuller lives.

Laws requiring handicapped parking sections are based on a respect for the dignity of persons with disabilities and a call to others to treat them with fairness and justice. The pursuit of values associated with the human spirit is the purpose of freedom. Protection of these same values is the justification for restricting personal liberty.

Not all values, however, are of equal weight. Some are more fundamental than others. On this Respect Life Sunday, I wish to emphasize that no earthly value is more fundamental than human life itself. Human life is the condition for enjoying freedom and all other values. Consequently, if one must choose between protecting or serving lesser human values that depend upon life for their existence and life itself, human life must take precedence.

Today the recognition of human life as a fundamental value is threatened. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of elective abortion. At present in our country this procedure takes the lives of over 4,000 unborn children every day and over 1.5 million each year.

Some, though admittedly a small minority, even favor abortion for the purpose of eliminating a child that is not the sex desired by the mother or both parents. Such a decision gives more weight to gender preference than to life itself. Yet, this is permitted under our nation's current legal policy virtually allowing abortion on demand.

Others, though increasingly a minority give, higher priority to the freedom of teenage girls to abort their children without their parents knowledge or consent than they do the value of the human lives these young women carry within them. Overcoming fear, embarrassment and inconvenience, or concern about not interrupting one's career plans are value often cited in justifying elective abortion. Giving precedence to these values to justify abortion ignores the priority of the more fundamental value, namely life itself.

The primary intention of the consistent ethic of life, as I have articulated it over the past six years, is to raise consciousness about the sanctity and reverence of all human life from conception to natural death. The more one embraces this concept, the more sensitive one becomes to the value of human life itself at all stages. This is why this year's Respect Life observance, whose program is shaped by the consistent ethic of life, includes, in addition to abortion, such topics as euthanasia, the Church and technology, violence in our culture, the changing American family, and the Church's concern for the elderly.

This consistent ethic points out the inconsistency of defending life in one area while dismissing it in another. Each specific issue requires its own moral analysis and each may call for varied, specific responses. Moreover different issues may engage the energies of different people or of the same people at different times. But there is a linkage among all the life issues which cannot be ignored.

Because of the Webster decision, the abortion issue is being debated intensely at this moment. and the consistent ethic has much to contribute. For the more one reverences human life at all stages, the more one becomes committed to preserving the life of the unborn, for this is human life at its earliest and most vulnerable stage. And the more one is committed to preserving the life of the unborn, the one more one appreciates their need for constitutional protection.

There are those who support abortion on demand who do not grasp or will not discuss the intrinsic value of human life and the precedence it should take in decision making. The issue - the only issue - they insist, is the question of who decides -- the individual or the government.

Who decides is not the issue. We all decide, but we make our free decisions within limits. In exercising our freedom, we must not make ourselves the center of the world. Other individuals born and unborn are as much a part of the human family as we are.

On this Respect Life Sunday I invite reflection on our free choices and the values which really are worth pursuing. I encourage a deeper appreciation for the freedom we have and how it enables us to achieve selfhood in harmony with others, particularly the weak and vulnerable whose dignity as persons may not be as clearly in evidence. In short, I exhort you to decide for life.


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