Hubert Horatio Humphrey was vice president of the United States from 1965 to 1969. At the dedication of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building in 1977 in Washington, he made the following comment:
"The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."
At that time, such a statement would not have provoked either dissention or controversy. It was a different era, one we may look back on with a feeling of nostalgia.
A decade later, Pope John Paul II saw fit to remind Americans of the moral ideal so eloquently expressed by Humphrey:
"This is the dignity of America, the reason she exists, the condition for her survival — yes, the ultimate test of her greatness — to respect every human person, especially the weakest and the most defenseless ones, those as yet unborn."
Blessed John Paul would make his plea for protection of the defenseless more formal and extensive in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). Here, he echoed Vatican II’s statement that crimes against life "poison human society." But he noted that "a new cultural climate is developing and taking hold" in which "broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom."
Violence, specifically against the unborn, had become not only a "right," but one protected by the government and carried out even by "health-care systems."
To say that times had changed would be a colossal understatement.
In opposition to the Holy Father’s plea, Pamela Maraldo, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, called it "a political and social document that is out of step with the developing world." Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who was pro-life at one time, failed to see its humanitarian nature, dismissing it as an "attempt to legislate the law of their church." Evangelist Billy Graham was not so deceived, praising the Pope "for a forceful and thoughtful defense of the sacredness of human life in the face of the modern world’s march toward violence and needless death."
Could the modern world be out of step with the most fundamental needs of humanity? Had universal care become unfashionable?
In 2006, South Dakota Gov. Michael Rounds signed The Women’s Health and Human Life Protection Act that would outlaw the practice of abortion except in certain extreme cases. In signing the bill, he made the following statement: "The true test of a civilization is how well people treat the most vulnerable and the most helpless in their society. The sponsors and supporters of this bill believe that abortion is wrong because unborn children are the most vulnerable and the most helpless persons in our society. I agree with them."
The governor’s statement provoked strong opposition. Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, referred to it as "a chilling reminder of the lengths to which anti-choice lawmakers will go to interfere in our most difficult and personal decisions." She went on to label the bill as "dangerous and unconstitutional legislation" that "threatens to endanger women’s lives and imprison doctors."
What Pope John Paul had identified as a culture of life was now interpreted as the real culture of death. The tables were turned; misunderstanding and confusion had become rampant. Hubert Humphrey’s benign words were now fighting words. Fair had become foul as foul had become fair.
In the year 2002, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., voted against the Induced Infant Liability Act, which would have protected babies who were "accidentally" born alive during attempts to abort them. At a 2008 town-hall meeting in Pennsylvania, he made it clear that he did not regard the unborn as worthy of protection when he said to his audience, "Look: I’ve got two daughters, 9 years old and 6 years old. If they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby."
Concerning the elderly and infirm, he said that the vote he most regrets was the one he cast to save Terri Schiavo’s life. He promised Planned Parenthood, "The first thing I do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act."
America, at least from the perspective of the White House, is no longer embracing the universal care for people at all stages of life. It champions choice while ignoring the violent implications that choice often contains.
President Obama’s rhetoric in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon tragedy was impressive and moving. His denunciation of violence was indeed powerful.
But the greater concern is whether this "champion of choice" is, as Vatican II described it, "poisoning human society" by accepting certain violent acts as "rights."
Recent tragedies have redefined who is helpless. The bystanders at the marathon as well as the school children in Newtown, Conn., were helpless.
We are now all helpless in the face of modern weaponry and acts of terror.
The unborn, the aged and the handicapped are no longer special categories. We are all in the same boat — and we all deserve equal protection.
Violence must be denounced — not only after it has occurred, but, far more importantly, before it ever happens — by a commitment to extend protection and care to everyone without exception.
This is not, something "chilling," as Nancy Keenan has said. It is simply the essential obligation of any government that aspires to work for a true civilization.
Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International.
He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario,
and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary
in Cromwell, Connecticut.