The feast of Easter brings great consolation to those who have struggled for 30 years or more in the pro-life movement in this country. From a human point of view, we seem to go from defeat to defeat. Attitudes have shifted drastically, making society tolerant of contraception, abortion, infanticide, physician-assisted suicide, and soon, legally sanctioned euthanasia. Pope John Paul II has expressed his own profound dismay about these developments in previously Christian societies.
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) the Holy Father speaks of “atrocious crimes” and “murderous violence” abroad and in our land. He says that those who would choose abortion as a solution to problems have an attitude that “is shameful and utterly reprehensible.’ He is incredulous that in our day “crimes have assumed the nature of rights.’ Nations that had been considered civilized are reverting “to a state of barbarism.’ Whenever we see legally sanctioned abortion, the Pope tells us, we are dealing with a “tyrant state,” which is engaged in a “tragic caricature of legality.’ Indeed we must recognize that in a country such as the United States with its anti-life policies, “the disintegration of the state has begun.’
The Pope has delineated in forceful and profoundly unsettling language the gravity and depth of the cultural struggle being waged today. We are engaged in mortal combat between “a culture of death” and “a culture of life.’ John Paul sees the future of humanity itself as being at stake. In his 1994 Letter to Families he writes: “we are facing an immense threat to life: not only to the life of individuals but also to that of civilization itself.’
Nowhere is that struggle more intense than in the area of medicine and the life sciences. The freezing of human embryos has become commonplace. Pregnancy has come to be redefined in order to allow experimentation on—and destruction of—human life at its earliest stages of development. In vitro fertilization, which invariably involves the destruction of some human lives for the sake of others, has engendered thousands of children—but tragically at great cost of life. Pregnant women carrying more children than desired allow some of them to be destroyed through “fetal reduction.’ We find the moral sensibilities of our society so weakened that it cannot muster the moral courage to outlaw infanticide (also known as “partial-birth abortion") at the national level. Oregon now legally permits physicians to help patients kill themselves.
‘We are facing an immense threat to life: not only to the life of individuals but also to that of civilization itself.’
Admittedly, such developments are terribly discouraging, but we cannot allow ourselves to become discouraged. The feast of the Resurrection is the time to be restored and revivified for continuing the struggle for life.
Easter is the time to remember the name of this little boy or girl that our pro-life efforts helped save. There are surely tens of thousands of children who are known to pro-lifers because they counseled a friend at work or a classmate at school not to abort the child she was carrying. There are countless pro-lifers who have taken troubled young women into their homes to help them in times of need and forged lifetime bonds with them and their children. Easter is the time to remember these victories—and to look to the day when we will no longer have simply these individual triumphs. Rather we will have actually forged a new culture of life, a civilization of love, in which innocent life will quite naturally enjoy the benefit of the protection of the state and of society at large.
As we work for that new day we should be able to look to Catholic health care in the United States to be a powerful force for positive social change. Catholic health care is unequivocally committed to the weak, the vulnerable, and those on the margin of society. Many Catholic hospitals evaluate their chief executive officers not only by the financial bottom line but also by the amount of charity care that has been provided to the surrounding community.
Furthermore, all Catholic health care facilities are bound to follow the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those Directives provide guidance to the personnel of Catholic health care institutions to enable them to avoid ever violating the dignity of the human person who has come to them for care. There are clear prohibitions against abortion and euthanasia, against human experimentation that would not benefit the patient, and against surgical sterilizations and contraception that affront the dignity of men and women.
Easter is a time to celebrate not only the individual, personal redemption each one of us can have in Jesus Christ. Easter is also a time for great hope that an entire culture will one day be redeemed and transformed into a true culture of life. One of the most promising agents for such a transformation is surely Catholic health care.
John Haas is president of the Pope John Center for the Study of Ethics in Health Care in Boston, Massachusetts.