After three controversial meetings, group's biggest problem this year: a rejected ad
HOUSTON—After three consecutive years of meetings marked by controversy, Human Life International's (HLI) annual conference went off this year with hardly a hitch. The 17th annual conference of the world's largest pro—life, pro—family organization not only failed to attract the problems of recent years at its April 15—19 meeting here, the group couldn't even buy controversy—at least not from the Houston Chronicle.
Last year, the conference—and more specifically HLI's founder Father Paul Marx OSB—encountered charges of antiSemitism from militant adversaries in the Minneapolis, Minn., area where the event was held. The previous year, in Cincinnati, Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women attacked HLI in newspaper ads and picketed the event. In 1996, homosexual activists and unruly abortion and contraception advocates demonstrated in Montreal—particularly the opening Mass at Notre Dame cathedral.
This year's lack of controversy was even more surprising considering HLI's full—page advertisement entitled “It's Time To Tell the Truth About Planned Parenthood,” that appeared in several local papers. The ad, derived primarily from Planned Parenthood's published material, explained the organization's agenda and activities as a major provider of abortion, contraception, and sex education, while detailing the increased levels of U.S. government (taxpayer) funding each year.
Planned Parenthood offered no response. The ad had been designed to run in the Houston Chronicle, the city's largest daily, with a reported circulation of 549,000. The newspaper rejected the ad however, indicating that it did not meet the Chronicle's “standards.” The Chronicle refused to provide the Register with written standards for advertisements or to confirm that such guidelines exist.
HLI immediately placed the ad in the Katy Times, The Leader, the Port Arthur Times, the Fort Bend Star, and the Forward Times. Two Catholic diocesan papers in Texas also ran the ad. HLI media relations chief Don Treshman estimated the alternate ad campaign reached approximately 300,000 households at one—quarter of the original cost.
“We are outraged by the rejection of this ad [by the Chronicle],” said HLI president Father Richard Welch CSsR. “It is a curious situation when a daily newspaper that exists to tell the truth and report facts to the community discriminates against the truth when it comes to the Planned Parenthood organization.”
The priest described the ad as factual and non—libelous. He said it had been thoroughly scrutinized and approved by HLI's legal department.
When asked if written standards or objective criteria were used to approve such advertising, Melissa Beisenherz, the Chronicle's public affairs manager, told the Register that the paper had the right to deny any advertisement. She offered no other explanation for the decision, but admitted that ads were rarely rejected.
Father Welch said the rejection of the advertisement prompted him to consider a lawsuit against the Chronicle.
“The grounds for such action under review include free speech, fair trade practices, public accommodation, and discrimination,” he said.
Treshman noted that the Chronicle had given verbal agreement to publish the ad after learning of its content. Upon receipt, however, it faxed notice of denial and returned the $25,000 check submitted with the ad.
When asked to speculate on the Chronicle's decision, Father Welch told the Register that HLI had discovered the publish—er's wife was a former board member of the local Planned Parenthood affiliate.
“We find in city after city, many of the major metropolitan newspapers are controlled in some way by Planned Parenthood…. There's always some sort of a connection there.”
The convention drew some 2,000 participants from 59 countries. Notable among the program's approximately 50 presenters were Joan Andrews Bell, Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade), Sandra Cano (Mary Doe of Doe v. Bolton), Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, Father Joseph Fessio SJ, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, and Kenneth Whitehead.
Some of the more than 60 conference sessions included: “Standing up to Anti—Life Politicians,” by Father George Parker; “Dying Palliative Care, and Euthanasia,” by Dr. Josefina Magno; “Breast Cancer and Abortion,” by Dr. Joel Brind; “Fighting Sex Education in Schools,” by James Sedlak;
“The Ravages of Contraception,” by Mercedes Wilson; “Helping the Homosexual Heal Himself,” by Dr. Gerard van den Aardweg; and “Human Cloning: Moral and Philosophical Considerations,” by Father Anthony Zimmerman SVD, STD. Day—long sessions were conducted for medical professionals and chastity teachers. Another session focused on pro—life issues among Latinos.
In a written message to the gathering, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family said “life is the great cause for the third millennium.”
The cardinal renewed the call for life to be taken up in families, schools, local Churches, the diverse groups that make up the pro—life movement, and within each individual heart. In emphasizing that the message and cause for life must continually be brought before governments, the cardinal noted that “there are people in prison today not because they have done any violence, but rather because they resisted unjust laws which allow abortion. We call for an end to this misuse of the justice system.”
Only three weeks before the conference, Joan Andrews Bell had been released from jail midway through a three—month sentence for refusing to accept probation 10 years after being arrested for staging a peaceful “rescue” demonstration at a Pennsylvania abortion facility. After her release, Bell did not return immediately to her New Jersey home. Instead, she stayed in Pennsylvania to seek legal assistance for a fellow inmate who was in danger of losing her preborn child.
HLI presented Bell with its annual outstanding pro—lifer award during the final banquet. Greeted by a standing ovation, the woman often described as a “prisoner of conscience” urged participants to persevere in their witness to the sanctity of life. Citing Mother Teresa, she said Christians are not called to be successful, only to be faithful.
“I'll keep this for all of you,” she said of the award, reminding those in attendance that each member of the pro—life cause has a unique and important calling in the defense of human life.
Later in the program, Nathanson, a former abortionist and co—founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League who has since become a leading voice in the pro—life cause, recognized Bell by reading from her affidavit before being sentenced to jail (see “Refusing to Cooperate with Evil,” Feb. 1—7). Nathanson, who was received into the Catholic Church in December 1996 by New York's Cardinal John O‘Connor, proudly told the crowd that Bell was his “godmother.”
HLI in Rome
Father Welch also announced that HLI would be increasing its number of international affiliates to 89 by opening new branch offices in Rome and Switzerland as well as opening a multimedia production studio at its Front Royal, Va., headquarters.
The purpose of the center in Rome, due to open in June, primarily will be to serve seminarians and members of religious orders—especially those from the Third World—in the city for formation or studies.
“We hope to have some influence on their formation, and get good literature and good resources into their hands about the life issues,” he told the Register.
“We believe that we are the experts on population issues,” he added. “Whatever country you're from, you're going to confront population control problems—Planned Parenthood, abortion, abortifacients, euthanasia.”
He said he hoped the benefits of such a presence would include a “trickle down” effect to influence cultures around the world.
A further advantage of having a Rome office, he noted, was “a closer working relationship with the Holy See.”
Reflecting on the controversy of recent conferences and the rejected pro—life ad, the HLI president said that when an organization effectively proclaims the Gospel of Life, opposition is to be expected.
“What this points out is what is always present underneath—the war that's always going on between two cultures: the cultures of life and death.”
For more information on the conference, or to obtain audio cassettes of the presentations, visit HLI's Web site a http://www.hli.org or te,lephone 1—800—549—LIFE.
Peter Sonski is an assistant editor of the Register.