Cardinal O'Connor Still Inspires Pro-Life Movement

Georgetown conference in his name on the eve of March for Life features Archbishop Chaput.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia gives address at 13th annual Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia gives address at 13th annual Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life. (photo: CNA)

WASHINGTON — An 80% abortion rate of those with disabilities shows the need to restore a fundamental respect for human dignity in America, said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia.

He underscored that the plight of disabled babies highlights “a struggle within the American soul” that will shape the future of the nation.

“These children with disabilities are not a burden; they’re a priceless gift to all of us,” the archbishop said. “They’re a doorway to the real meaning of our humanity.”

Archbishop Chaput delivered the keynote address at the 13th annual Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life on Jan. 22.

Cardinal John O’Connor, who was archbishop of New York from 1984-2000, is widely heralded for his compassion to all persons in need and his special commitment to the unborn and their mothers. At the conference that bears his name, pro-life students, families and educators gathered from around the world to remember this legacy and to renew their commitment to the same cause. 

According to Katie Schmitz, co-organizer of the 2012 conference, “The Cardinal O’Connor Conference is the nation’s largest student-run pro-life conference. While we received gracious support and advice from the university, Georgetown students organized and directed the entire conference.”

This year, the conference welcomed more than 600 attendees — including a group from the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Australia, and Hatze Oir, a pro-life organization from Spain — exceeding previous years by 200-plus new attendees.

Though Cardinal O’Connor is well remembered for speaking out for pro-life causes at any opportunity, he is particularly known for addressing this issue in the media. It was this constant commitment to bringing the pro-life cause to the center of public conversation that inspires Schmitz and her fellow students at Georgetown to host an annual event with that same spirit of robust conversation.

“While other conferences focus on mobilizing activists,” noted Schmitz, “we bring prominent experts, professors, lawyers and politicians who give our attendees the inspiration of speaking out through an informed dialogue. We welcome activists and pro-life activism, but we seek to enhance that activism through an educational and inspirational conference.”

‘Paganism With Air Conditioning’

The conference brought together a wide range of experts to address various facets of the pro-life movement.

“We tried to broaden the scope of life topics discussed in hopes of broadening the minds of our attendees to consider the sanctity of all human life at all stages and in all conditions,” said Kevin Sullivan, co-organizer of the conference. “This is why we included a mix of clergy, politicians, doctors, professors, a media personality and other professionals: to address various aspects of the pro-life movement, including bioethics, the history and future of pro-life law, the spread of HIV/AIDS and life issues in the media.”

Throughout the conference, Cardinal O’Connor’s legacy was invoked as an example to follow.

During his opening remarks, Archbishop Chaput reflected on his friend Cardinal O’Connor and reminded attendees to be aware of what is taking place in society and to evaluate all things carefully.

“Things that are considered progress can be wicked and murderous,” he warned. “Catholics need to wake up and realize that what we are experiencing now is a new kind of paganism with air conditioning and digital television.”

He warned that without a strong foundation of faith and morals, America becomes “alien and hostile” to its founding ideals. This threat is clearly demonstrated in the country’s treatment of the poor and disabled, which the archbishop said “shows what we really believe about human dignity.”

Archbishop Chaput focused on children with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects development, appearance and cognitive function and can cause other health problems.

He observed that prenatal testing is now able to detect up to 95% of pregnancies that have a strong risk of Down syndrome, and more than 80% of the unborn babies who are diagnosed with the disorder are aborted.

These babies are killed because of a flaw in their chromosomes that is “neither fatal nor contagious, but merely undesirable,” he said. 

The archbishop lamented the growing tendency of medical professionals to emphasize the possible defects of Down syndrome, thus steering expectant mothers of children with the disorder towards abortion.

If we really “take God seriously,” we will work to uphold the sanctity of human life and dignity of sexuality in our daily lives, he said.

This means that public officials should live out their Catholic faith in the laws that they support; doctors in the procedures they perform and the drugs they prescribe; and citizens in their actions on public issues, he explained. 

Although changing the culture is “a huge task,” we must recognize that we are being called by God to do so, the archbishop said. “He’s waiting, and now we need to answer him.”

Congressional Panel

The conference also included one-hour seminars by Vicki Thorne of Project Rachel, a post-abortion ministry; Steven Mosher of the Population Research Institute; Father Stephen Fields, a Georgetown University theologian, and others. Previous years have included Alveda King, former Sen. Rick Santorum, Congressman Henry Hyde and Helen Alvare.

This year, the conference launched a new initiative by hosting an afternoon congressional panel featuring three pro-life legislators: Chris Smith, R-N.J., Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, and Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., moderated by Georgetown associate professor of government Patrick Deneen. The three representatives have been leaders in the recent legislative attempts to block taxpayer payments to Planned Parenthood and to provide conscience exemptions for health-care workers. The three Republican legislators also used the opportunity to remind audience members of the ramifications of the 2012 presidential election for pro-life voters.

“We’re making progress,” Smith noted, before cautioning, “The game changer will be this upcoming election.”

In addition to the seminars and panels, the conference continued its tradition of awarding its Thomas King, S.J. Award in honor of the now-deceased Georgetown professor of 40 years. Father King was the co-founder of the group University Faculty for Life and an advisor of the Cardinal O’Connor Conference. This year the award was presented to the Students for Life of America group at the University of Michigan in recognition of their new initiative “Pregnant on Campus.” The $1,000 award will be used toward supporting pregnant college women who choose to keep their child rather than seek abortion.

Cardinal O’Connor once remarked, “It is my very sincere prayer that if I live for a week, if I live for 20 years, my last breath will be in support of the sacredness of every human life.” It’s safe to conclude that this same hope has also become the prayer of many others.

Register correspondent Christopher White writes from New York; Catholic New Agency contributed to this story.