Steve Mosher: A Vision of 'Hell' Brought Him to the Church

His story reveals why the New Evangelization draws its strength from the Church’s pro-life witness.

FRONT ROYAL, Va. — Steve Mosher was a rising Stanford University social researcher, schooled in the academy’s received wisdom on matters like abortion and the “right to choose,” when he was suddenly thrown off course.

It was 1980, and he was the first U.S. social scientist to receive permission to study the impact of political changes in a remote Chinese village. The Communist Party’s one-child policy was in full force, and Mosher followed village women in their third trimester of pregnancy to the local facility where forced abortions were performed.

“They were crying, begging for mercy and praying for their dying children. It’s one thing to think about abortion in the abstract, but when you see a baby at seven-months gestation, it’s a baby — truly one of us,” said Steve Mosher, now the president of the Population Research Institute, recalling that fateful moment.

“It was as if the pit of hell opened up before me. All of the rationalizations were swept away by the brute facts — the humanity of these babies and their killing. I instantly realized that an abortion was the taking of a human life, and I became pro-life.”

The struggle to make sense of human suffering brings some converts into the Church, and others turn to Rome when the values of the world leave their souls undernourished. But the pro-life movement also draws people like Mosher, who kneel before the Eucharist after a long search for the origin of goodness and truth.

While the inconvenient moral teachings of the faith fuel both theological dissent and partisan attacks against the Church, pro-life activists like Mosher are attracted to its teachings precisely because they offer a consistent and coherent defense of innocent human life against the brutal power of a culture of death.

In hindsight, he says that visit to the Chinese abortion facility forced him to abandon his casual, untested adherence to moral relativism and embark on an uncharted spiritual pilgrimage.

“On a scale of evil from 1 to 10, this was a 10. And if there is absolute evil, I concluded that there also must be a counterbalancing absolute good — or the universe would be truly mad.”

‘I Felt Drawn’

After several false starts, Mosher discovered that “if you seek good, you will find God, who is the source of all good in the universe.”

Ultimately, he found that the “only organization consistently defending the sanctity of life from conception to natural death was the Catholic Church, which had preserved the fullness of the truth. Others had abandoned parts, if not all, of it.”

In part, his spiritual quest was set in motion by the practical consequences of his groundbreaking scholarly work that documented coercive abortions in China. While some news editorials applauded his courage and intellectual independence, Mosher said the Chinese government reportedly applied extraordinary pressure on Stanford University to sever the scholar’s association with the university in 1985.

Afterward, Mosher continued to write and work at research centers. He and his wife, Vera, a cradle Catholic, had begun attending church together — after a chance visit to the California Mission of San Luis Obispo. But the scholar had yet to find his true professional vocation and felt adrift.

Then he got a call from Benedictine Father Paul Marx, the leader of Human Life International, who invited him to speak at a pro-life conference. Mosher was disinclined to accept, but there were no other pressing invitations, and so he agreed.

He was surprised to discover that the conference participants were “warm, loving and intelligent. I felt immediately drawn to them.”

Mosher became a regular presenter at HLI conferences, and Father Marx became a spiritual mentor. “He taught my wife and I natural family planning. We were older, and we used NFP to have as many children as we could.”

The Benedictine priest came to the rescue when Mosher finally signed up for a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults class, but got fed up with what he thought was his instructor’s inadequate theology. He told the priest he was thinking of quitting the RCIA process — and the following day he received Jesuit Father John Hardon’s Catholic Catechism by overnight mail, courtesy of Father Marx.

“Steve stuck with the RCIA program and wound up teaching that class. He was on fire for the faith,” recalled Vera Mosher, who homeschooled most of their nine children.

She observed that her husband’s experience in China had an enduring impact on his reverence for the vocation of fathers. Over the years, he has drawn his children into his pro-life work, and they have all accompanied him to conferences.

“Seeing a baby aborted touched him in a profound way. He had a less-than-perfect father, but he learned about our Father in heaven and the great love and forgiveness he offers. He wanted to do better by his children, and he had the prefect role model to turn to,” she said.

Spiritual Battle

Ultimately, Mosher went to work for HLI, moving his family to a farm in the Shenandoah Valley, near the organization’s office in Front Royal, Va. His distinctive mission was to develop data-supported arguments that challenge the “myth of overpopulation, expose human-rights abuses committed in population-control programs and make the case that people are the world’s greatest resource.”

In 1996, this work became the focus of the new nonprofit Population Research Institute, which was separately incorporated and has been independent from HLI since then. His latest book is Population Control: Real Costs and Illusory Benefits. Recently he contributed a chapter on his spiritual pilgrimage for an anthology of conversion stories, Chosen: How Christ Sent Twenty-Three Surprised Converts to Replant His Vineyard.

While Moshser’s decision to engage in full-time pro-life work would have been unthinkable back in the 1970s, when he embarked on his academic career at Stanford, the social researcher has never looked back.

“He has said more than once, ‘What does it profit a man to gain his Ph.D. and lose his immortal soul.’ He really believes that. He went in a different direction because God was leading him there,” observed Vera Mosher.

Joel Bockrath, the executive vice president of PRI who has worked with Mosher since 2005, has witnessed the strong spiritual foundations of his pro-life work.

“People who get in touch with PRI recognize that Steve has a strong spiritual formation driving his activity,” Bockrath said. “Many of them have arrived at the same point in the battle between good and evil.”

“The question is: How do you engage grace to fight the fight that God wants us to fight? The heart of that is love; you can’t do anything like that without love,” said Bockrath.

It was a blow when Father Marx died in March 2010, but Mosher believes that his mentor “had a holy death. He had not been able to speak or move during that time, but in his last moment in the hospital room, he sat up and raised his arms and said, ‘Take me home.’”

As Mosher continues his pro-life work, speaking at conferences and working with affiliated groups around the U.S. and in 30 countries, he often ponders how that glimpse of “hell” in China led him to the pro-life movement and the Catholic Church — and the lessons he has learned from inspirational leaders like Father Marx.

“I have Father Marx’s picture on my bedroom dresser,” said Mosher. “His is the first face I see when I get up, and he asks me, What will you do for the babies today?

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.