Two events in recent weeks have contributed to the perception that pro-life people are harsh, unfeeling, even murderous. The first concerns the Louisiana woman with the heart condition, denied an abortion by a state hospital. The second is the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian, a physician who performed abortions in New York. In both cases, media reports and talking heads do not conjure up any pretty pictures of the pro-life person and temperament. In both cases, they are dead wrong.
First, the case of the Louisiana woman, Michelle Lee. Ms. Lee is a woman whose doctors had told her that she should not get pregnant due to her serious heart condition. She got pregnant. She has been on a waiting list for a heart transplant for two and one-half years. The doctors at the very hospital where she had been getting heart treatment decided that her risk of death from pregnancy at this time (about 10 weeks into her pregnancy) was not 50% or more. Louisiana — a very pro-life state — has a law forbidding its public hospitals from performing abortions except when a moth-er's life is at stake. Private abortion clinics in Louisiana refused to perform the abortion because they did not have adequately sophisticated medical equipment and facilities. Spokespeople from the National Abortion Federation (NAF, an abortionists' trade association) attached themselves to Ms. Lee and “spun” the story to the media this way: fanatical pro-lifers, in the fanatical pro-life state of Louisiana, prevent a dying woman from getting an abortion absolutely medically necessary to save her life.
But there's a story behind the story. First, it later came out that the keepers of the waiting list for heart transplants intended to remove Ms. Lee from the list if she continued her pregnancy. Second, an unasked question: had any thought whatsoever been given to trying to save the mother and the baby? Apparently Ms. Lee's doctors thought this could be done; doctors who had been treating her for years saw no need to kill the child. Did Ms. Lee oppose this whole idea? Did she have any interest in this possibility? Did Ms. Lee or her handlers at NAF wish, rather, to push the idea that the mean ol' pro-life citizens and institutions of Louisiana wouldn't let her have an abortion based on her self-diagnosis that her life was at stake? These questions were never asked or answered in the course of the debate.
Finally, no one ever reported the fact that Ms. Lee could have continued to receive treatment for her heart condition, while pregnant. Neither the Catholic Church, nor any other pro-life voice opposes medical treatment directed toward the mother's health. It is true the child might be indirectly and harmfully affected by this treatment. But this is morally very different from direct action to kill the child. In some situations the best that can be done is action to assist the life and health of the mother, while working to mitigate any harm that might be done to her unborn child.
Ms. Lee's story, in other words, is not about harsh, unfeeling pro-lifers. It is rather a story about a very scared young woman, under tremendous pressure of losing her chance at a heart transplant, self-diagnosing her need for an abortion, and refusing her experienced doctors' advice. Advice that might have saved both mother and child.
Regarding Dr. Slepian. It is hard even to write about this without a very heavy heart. Heavy because of the awful specter of a father of four being shot in the back in his own kitchen while talking with his wife and son. And, yes, heavy too because of some self-interest. Self-interest in the well-being and reputation of the pro-life movement.
It has been said before by Catholic bishops all over the United States, and it is being said again: this man's life was sacred and inviolable. It was absolutely wrong to take it, and nothing like this should happen again. The action turns on its head everything the pro-life movement holds dear. At the same time, it must be said, that this action has nothing whatsoever to do with the pro-life movement in the United States. In the case of Dr. Slepian, no suspects have even been named. But even if it turns out that the murderer is someone who calls himself “pro-life,” that could never make him so. By his actions, he would have deliberately placed himself outside the pro-life community. We are and we aspire to be respectful in our dealings with all human life. We aspire to witness to the pro-life vision we preach. So that people will see us and say: “that's how the world should be.”
When our reputations are getting raked over the coals, hold fast to this vision. And speak up and tell them why they are wrong.
Helen Alvaré is director of planning and information at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.