‘Forty Years of Abortion in This Country Is a Disgrace’

Special to the Register: Catholic University of America president John Garvey speaks to CUA students on the day of the 2013 March for Life.

CUA president John Garvey.
CUA president John Garvey. (photo: Catholic News Agency)

I am happy to see so many of you here today. Your optimism and enthusiasm are inspiring. Yesterday, Jamila Evans, in charge of our women’s and pro-life campus ministry, did an interview with Catholic TV. She said that the pro-life cause is the issue of your generation. So it is.

On Tuesday, we lamented 40 years of abortions since Roe v. Wade made the practice a constitutional right. We mourned the loss of 55 million lives. We grieved for women cornered or shamed into having abortions. And we decried the ambition of the abortion industry — a business so corrupt that it demonized the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation rather than lose funds or implicit support.

Today, you and I and hundreds of thousands of other marchers are going to remind our elected officials, our courts and the American public of the greatest offense against human rights that has been committed since the collapse of totalitarian regimes that killed tens of millions of people in Europe and Asia. We are right to grieve.

I wish I could say things are getting better, but there is plenty of bad news out there. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll indicates that 7 in 10 Americans think we should keep Roe v. Wade. That is the highest level of support since polls began tracking it in 1989.

Planned Parenthood recently reported with pride that it had performed a record number of abortions in 2011 — 333,964. Nearly half its revenues, more than half a billion dollars, come from government funding. And in a state whose abortion rate is already double the national average, New York’s Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo has proposed measures that even fellow Democrats call “out of touch with the views of most Americans.” He wants to lift restrictions on late-term abortions, eliminate cautionary measures for young people seeking abortion (like parental notifications) and authorize people who are not doctors to perform abortions. To cap it off, he would include a fundamental right “to terminate a pregnancy” in state law.

Planned Parenthood and its ilk are refining their social agenda as well. They realize that, in order to improve their abortion pitch to a new generation, they will have to bundle it with other messages that are easier to sell. Younger abortion advocates have re-described their message as one of “reproductive justice,” a program that includes the promotion of "gay rights," health care and contraception, among other things.

They are also having success in one area where the pro-life movement has long had a natural advantage: the public’s attitude about abortion itself, not just the right to have one. “Choice” is a message that sells. But “abortion” has long made people uncomfortable. Even though big stars like Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore campaign for Planned Parenthood, TV and movie producers and writers have been reluctant to write abortions into their scripts. In fact, several big movies from the 2000s — Juno, Bella, Knocked Up — promoted an explicitly pro-life message.

But that tide may be turning. Two popular shows pitched at 20-something audiences have recently depicted abortions. Last season, Grey’s Anatomy on ABC featured an abortion prominently in its script. This season on NBC’s Parenthood, a high-school senior (the girlfriend of a main character) got pregnant and chose to have an abortion. The producers of the show went so far as to show the young, sad couple sitting together in the tidy waiting room of Planned Parenthood. These follow NBC’s show Friday Night Lights (which introduced the abortion storyline in 2010) in beginning a new trend.

In each case, abortion is shown to be difficult. It is dramatic. But, then, so is everything else in the lives of these characters. "Don’t sweat it" is the message. Getting an abortion is just another adventure — like premarital sex — in the lives of modern young people.

So, that is the bad news. But the reality of abortion is too grotesque to be suppressed. Stories like the one about Kermit Gosnell force people to face the fact that abortion kills a child. Gosnell ran an abortion clinic in west Philadelphia and has been charged with murder for delivering at least six children alive, then cutting their spines or slitting their throats with scissors. Despite the efforts to normalize or sanitize the practice, we can’t ignore the fact that abortion is a moral choice, not just a political one. And, in fact, about 43% of the public, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, do think that abortion is immoral.

Forty years of social-science data have also undermined the worn-out arguments advocates used to justify abortion in the 1970s. Abortion did not decrease out-of-wedlock births, as its proponents promised. Nor have we realized the hope that legal abortion would lessen the incidence of child abuse. That was the implicit message behind the old slogan “Every child a wanted child.” But, according to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, reports of child abuse have gone up 1000% since abortion became legal in 1973. It turns out that normalizing violence against children in the womb doesn’t lead us to be kinder to them once they’re outside of it.

We also have a staggering amount of anecdotal evidence that abortion has not made women feel more in control of their lives, more secure or safer from exploitation. Abortion is a choice often made from a position of weakness or desperation. It often leads to long-lasting depression and regret. It also abets the work of pimps and sex traffickers to eliminate some of their business risks. Lila Rose and Live Action have shown that even established, federally funded abortion providers like Planned Parenthood are happy to help in these efforts.

A recent cover story for Time magazine declared, notwithstanding the poll data, that the pro-life side was ahead in the battle over abortion. It pointed to the success pro-life legislation has had on the state level. Since 2010, 32 states have passed over 100 pro-life laws. That is a hopeful sign, but there are too many signs pointing the other way to feel exultant, even satisfied.

So where are we 40 years after the legalization of abortion? It is hard not to think of the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering the desert. Those years were a punishment to God’s people, because they had created their own idols when they felt God hadn’t served them well enough. They were also a time for the Israelites to increase their faith and live better in accordance with the law God gave them.

Forty years of abortion in this country is a disgrace. For those whose eyes are open to the terrible reality — that abortion is an assault on women and children protected by the laws of this country — these 40 years have been a desert. It is tempting to give up, to believe that God has not heard us or has declined to answer our prayers. We must not do that.

I remember from my childhood a speech by President John F. Kennedy. Fifty years ago, he spoke about challenges facing the United States, including the dream of putting a man on the moon. He said, “We choose to go to the moon ... and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one which we intend to win.”

Fifty years ago, our country was engaged in a Cold War with a superpower adversary that oppressed its own people and threatened its neighbors and us with nuclear annihilation. Fifty, 40 and even 30 years ago, those people who predicted that the USSR was a corrupt empire that would eventually collapse were treated by the media and the political elite in this country as hopeless dreamers. But, in 1991, the Soviet Union did disintegrate, just as the clear-eyed idealists had predicted.

Roe v. Wade may not be overturned during our lives. We may lose ground in the culture wars, and some of our new pro-life laws may be overwhelmed in time by opposition. But every baby we save, every mother we spare the psychological pain of abortion, every person we turn to the pro-life cause is a victory for our side. Those victories make our efforts worthwhile.

We must press on, knowing the challenges will be hard, and take strength from their difficulty. We must be clear-eyed idealists in this most important of all human-rights campaigns, even if the media ignore us, even if some think we’re out of touch. It is enough to know that our cause is just and that we are faithful to the truth. Thank you for your help in the fight for life.

John Garvey is the president of The Catholic University of America.