America needs Henry Hyde, now more than ever.
Pro-lifers suffered major defeats in 2008. The human tendency is to reject our opponents in anger. Our job is to do what Hyde did. We must find away to reach out to opponents and save lives when our movement has lost the position of power.
U.S. Rep. Hyde, R.-Ill., died in November 2007 at age 83, after 32 years in Congress. Hyde’s signature pro-life achievement is the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited the use of federal taxpayer money for abortion. Before Hyde intervened, the federal government had financed 300,000 abortions. Afterwards, the number dropped to zero. The National Right to Life Committee has estimated, conservatively, that the Hyde Amendment prevented at least 1 million abortions.
Not only does that make him the single most effective pro-life activist of our time — it may mean he has saved more lives than any other individual in our time. About a million people are breathing, working, laughing and living life today because of what Henry Hyde did.
Amazingly, he passed the bill first in 1976, with a pro-abortion president, Jimmy Carter, in office, and a Democratic majority in Congress. With another pro-abortion president and Democratic-majority Congress coming to Washington, we would do well to remember what Hyde did, and follow Henry Hyde’s four rules for pro-lifers.
1. Don’t compromise on the right to life. Ever.
Perhaps the best article on Hyde’s pro-life legacy was Sheila Liagminus’ article in the Register. She quoted his own self-assessment. “I did not come into politics with a great interest in the rather heavy subject of values in public policy,” he wrote in 1985. “Appropriately enough, the crisis of abortion introduced me to the crisis of church and state.”
“Abortion was and is a technical, emotional and controversial issue. It is what politicians call a ‘no win’ issue — something that will make you enemies no matter what you do.”
He faced the no-win issue with courage.
“The early fights for that amendment were radical,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who, with others, such as Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., are pro-life heirs to Hyde. “Hyde was the star, a trailblazer. It’s tougher to blaze the trail than to follow on. Henry taught me the lesson that some things are worth losing elections for, and life is one of them.”
2. Respect, and work with, your opposition.
Hyde was a man who knew that respecting, and even befriending, your opponents is different from accepting their positions.
It would have been impossible for Hyde to fight the antagonistic coalition of the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and others by denunciations alone, with congressional majorities against him. Instead, he did what politicians do: He put together a rival coalition not of pure pro-lifers, but of whomever he could get, and marshaled that coalition for pro-life purposes.
President Bush summed up Hyde’s high-road approach when he awarded the congressman the Medal of Freedom. “Henry Hyde spoke of controversial matters with intellectual honesty and without rancor,” said Bush. “He proved that a man can have firm convictions and be a favorite of Democrats and Republicans alike.”
The Register story quoted Wayne Andersen, who began working for Hyde in Illinois in 1971. “Look, he had to persuade people to sign on to the Hyde Amendment who felt differently than he did on the definition of life and personhood, from the very beginning stages,” said Andersen. “He succeeded because he was extremely effective in his power of persuasion.”
3. Support other pro-lifers.
If today’s pro-lifers can learn from Henry Hyde what it means to “love your enemies,” we also need to learn from him what it means to love our allies.
The Thomas More Society’s Tom Brejcha described how Hyde intervened on behalf of fellow Chicagoan Joe Scheidler, the bullhorn-bearing founder of the Pro-Life Action League.
“We were at a low point in the trial of NOW v. Scheidler, the judge was inhospitable to our advocacy, and Congressman Hyde came back to Chicago from Washington to be a character witness for Joe,” Brejcha told the Register. “In his testimony, Henry praised Scheidler’s courage, and said that if pro-lifers had done similar work ‘at the entrance to Dachau and Auschwitz, there may have been fewer people incinerated there.’ He was absolutely unflappable.”
A corollary of working with the opposition is to not work against one’s allies. Something is wrong with our priorities when we value our differences more highly than the unity of our common cause.
4. Never give up.
Hyde didn’t live his whole life as a saint, though both he and his wife died very close to the Church. But he shared many of the political virtues that St. Thomas More, the patron saint of politicians, is famous for. In the movie A Man for All Seasons, More likes King Henry VIII as his friend and serves him as his king, even as he opposes his schism. More stays faithful to his principles to the end, dying “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Like More, Hyde died in the midst of his political battle, never backing down from his convictions.
“The principles he fought for will endure beyond his life on earth,” said Andersen. “He really made a difference. There is no other American politician who has so successfully committed himself to Catholic values. He always separated issues from people, and treated all people with respect.”
We don’t have to be politicians to imitate Henry Hyde. Every citizen in a democracy has a political role. We can apply Hyde’s four rules in our efforts to contact our own representatives (see VoteSmart.org), in our letters to our newspapers and comments on online forums, and in our personal dealings with voters and potential voters. Polls show that a majority of Americans have pro-life beliefs and don’t realize how far the laws have gone. We can teach them.
Hyde himself summed up our vocation: “God put us in the world to do noble things, to love and to cherish our fellow human beings.”
May we do that as well as he did.