Two extraordinary photos in the Nov. 28–Dec. 4 Register together offer a reason to hope for the success of efforts to build a culture of life in America. On the back page, we featured a photograph of Samuel Alexander Armas, who had not yet been born. A photographer was invited to document fetal spina bifida surgery. Unexpectedly, before the surgery was done, Samuel reached out of the incision in his mother's womb to grasp the doctor's finger.

The photograph of Samuel's gesture was given limited play in news outlets. But it became popular among pro-lifers, who e-mailed it to one another. One called it “the most amazing photo I've ever seen.”

It's no wonder. Samuel is 21 weeks old. In the United States, it is legal to perform a partial-birth abortion on such a child. The procedure is used for children from 20 weeks old to full-term. In it, a doctor partially delivers a baby, feet first, and then crushes the baby's skull, removing its contents.

In a Web site that documents U.S. House hearings on partial-birth abortion, the National Right to Life Committee quotes one doctor saying he has performed 1,000 partial-birth abortions. He said they are chosen mostly for nonmedical reasons, and that 80% are “purely elective.”

And, as an interview on the back page of this week's paper reminds us, the indignity to the child does not always end at the abortion. When President Clinton lifted the ban on fetal tissue research in 1993, he made possible a trade in fetal parts. The U.S. House is investigating evidence that babies Samuel's age and older are being obtained by companies that offer them for profit as “specimens” for medical experiments.

This all goes to show how much ours has become the “culture of death” that Pope John Paul II has termed it.

But there's another photograph on the front page of the same issue. This one shows former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the revolutions that ended the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

The picture shows Gorbachev smiling, framed by a large crucifix at St. George Orthodox chapel in Prague.

Before the sudden events of 10 years ago, Gorbachev led the “evil empire,” one of two “superpowers,” and perhaps the most feared nation in the world. The Cold War seemed unwinnable, and movies and television shows contemplated nuclear annihilation.

Gorbachev visited the Vatican on Dec. 1, 1989, making it obvious that the decades-long experiment in atheistic communism had failed. That day, the Holy Father crowned his years of effort to restore Eastern Europe by calling on Gorbachev to reopen the churches of the Soviet bloc.

Ten years later, it is fitting that Gorbachev should be photographed in a chapel, framed by an image of Christ. Not long ago, such a picture would have been unthinkable.

This should give us heart. It reminds us that history is not just the story of the things men and women do. It is most importantly the story of what God does.

If we are tempted to disillusionment by a culture that is capable of both fetal surgery and partial-birth abortion, we can remember that the same crucified Christ stands over our times, as well.

Pope John Paul II attributed the remarkable events of 1989 to the recommitment to Christ the Church made in the Marian year of 1986-87. What can we expect from the Jubilee celebration of Christ's birth in the year 2000?