Although it has existed for 20 years, the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life is still an underappreciated jewel that takes place in Washington every year around the March for Life. The student-run pro-life conference, organized by Georgetown University Right to Life, et al., usually occurs the day before or after the March for Life. The 20th Annual Conference met Jan. 19.

Recent Marches for Life have been characterized by their evident youth component. The mainstream media, which so diligently hides news about this annual civil rights demonstration, even remarks on the predominance of young people—grade and high schoolers but especially growing numbers of collegians—whose banners show they’ve traveled many hours to march up Constitution Avenue for life.

The O’Connor Conference, named in honor of the late New York Archbishop who was such an indefatigable advocate of the right to life and the founder of the Sisters for Life, presents high quality discussion of life issues. Recent conferences have begun with a plenary keynote address followed by three hours of breakout sessions from which attendees have multiple choices of presentations, concluding with a conference discussion of four or more public intellectuals considering the state of life issues. The Conference is preceded by a Holy Hour and ends with Mass.

This year’s keynoter was Timothy Cardinal Dolan, O’Connor’s second successor as Archbishop of New York. He spoke of the consequences of ideas good and bad as well as the importance of witness, holding out the life of the late New York City Detective Steven McDonald as an illustration. McDonald, shot in 1986 by a 15-year old bicycle thief and rendered quadriplegic, spent the following 30 years witnessing to the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. His life, said Dolan, testified to how the power of being trumps the values of doing or having, the usual criteria by which contemporary society measures worth.

I attended two rich panels. Notre Dame’s Dr. Mary O’Callaghan, herself the mother of a son with Down syndrome, addressed the paradox of prenatal genetic counseling. It’s a paradox because typical medical screening takes place to prevent or cure diseases. Prenatal diagnosis usually identifies genetic abnormalities for which we have neither cures nor substantial research budgets. (O’Callaghan noted that California spends around $170 million yearly to fund prenatal testing, but the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s Downs Syndrome research budget is around $18 million per annum). The message clearly is one of encouraging killing the patient rather than curing the disease. The absence of social support for parents with genetically ill children also results in O’Callaghan’s not surprising estimates that the vast majority of children tagged with “genetic abnormalities” are aborted, to the tune of about 27,000 per annum in the United States. Resources like perinatal hospice support have only recently taken off and states are only beginning to require that parents be informed of these options. (See https://www.perinatalhospice.org/).

Catherine Foster, president of Americans United for Life and a practicing attorney, discussed the landscape of pro-life legislation in the United States today. She saluted the many pro-life regulations promulgated by the Trump Administration while adding that the switch in leadership of the House of Representatives would make pro-life efforts in Congress more challenging. Hoping that changes in the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court may lead to at least a partial rollback of Roe’s radical abortion liberty, Foster pressed the need for state-level pro-life activism, expecting the denationalization of American abortion policy to ignite pro-life debates in the 50 states soon.

This year’s conference discussion focused on contemporary pro-life priorities. Chaired by EWTN’s Catherine Hadro, the panelists (Steven Aden, Chief Legal Officer of Americans United for Life; Jeanne Mancini, President of the March for Life; George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center; and Prof. Daniel Williams of the University of West Georgia and an expert in pro-life history) identified several recurring themes:

  • The expected decentralization of the abortion debate as likely modification of Roe et al. v. Wade shifts the discussion back to State legislatures (and the consequent challenge of ensuring sufficient resources to fight this fight in 50 jurisdictions);
  • The necessity of building a pro-life culture to sustain any legal changes which, absent greater social valuation of life, are likely to be unstable and transitory; and
  • The primacy of the person and personal contact. A culture of life will be built one person at a time and, as George Weigel noted, the consistent message from pro-life counselors why women say they chose abortion was that they felt they lacked a “friend” on whom to lean for support at that difficult time.

The O’Connor Conference is a perfect complement to the March for Life: we need to fight for life, but we have to stay informed about the stakes in that fight. The Conference is a wonderful way to do it, and a day spent with so many bright, young and idealist future leaders will fill you with hope.