Upholding the Dignity of the Human Person — Including Women

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women wraps up its annual meeting tomorrow, and a focus of the gathering this year is the 15th anniversary of the fourth international conference on women that was held in Beijing in 1995.

One woman on hand is Jeanne Monahan, director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council. The Washington-based organization is a faith-based think tank and political watchdog on topics that touch on the questions of human dignity, sexuality, marriage and family, and how these affect culture.

Monahan holds a master’s degree in theology of marriage and family from the Pope John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington D.C., She worked at the Office of the Secretary of Health and Human Services, where she served as special assistant to the director of Global Health Affairs. Her government experience included domestic and international abstinence education, including program development at the Agency for International Development, popularly known as USAID.

She’s concerned about the focus at the Beijing+15 conference on maternal-child health — not that health for women and children is a bad thing, but because, she says, “maternal-child health is a term that, in global health policy, has often been used as a cover for abortion and reproductive rights for women and adolescent girls.”

“One of my hopes,” she said, “is to help bring to light what real maternal-child health is, work with other organizations to offer better solutions.”

Before government service, Monahan spent years educating others in the Church about a culture of life. She has frequently traveled to different regions of the country to address women and youth on John Paul II’s theology of the body, human sexuality and matters of faith and life through radio, retreats, conferences and the classroom.

Monahan spoke to Register correspondent Kirsten Evans, who is covering the Beijing+15 conference for the Register.

Would you discuss the path that brought you to the pro-life, pro-human dignity movement?

I grew up in a very Catholic family, so I was taught to respect the dignity of the human person from a young age. But it was when I left college and did a term of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) that I found myself asking some tough, hard questions about the nature of human life.

My JVC service was spent working with child victims of abuse, often by their parents. All had suffered from either physical, sexual, emotional, psychological or substance abuse — some of the most horrible kind of abuse you can imagine — from a very early age.

These kids came from difficult and complicated backgrounds, and were deeply wounded by life even before arriving to adulthood.

At the time, I found myself surrounded by currents of thought that would suggest that these kids’ lives were so beaten and battered, it would have been better had they not ever been born. And as a young adult, I had to ask myself some pretty tough questions in response.

I always arrived at a bottom line: “Who am I to pass judgment on the value of a human life, no matter how blessed or how broken it seems to me? Who am I to judge the value of someone else’s life?”

This question has grown to become a strong conviction over the years. Wrestling with the raw truths of human life, in its pain and its glory, working with abused children or seeing firsthand the deep poverty of people in India or Africa, and the injustice and indignity of their poverty, while working for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has continually forced me back to the question and the conviction.

To see millions of people living in abject poverty where their most basic needs are not met, and recognizing that each one of those individuals has as much inherent dignity as you or I, really moves your conscience.

When did you become interested in public policy?

After college, I spent years doing one-on-one ministry work in the Catholic Church through social-service programs and parish- and school-based ministry. I had a background in psychology, so began studying at the John Paul II Institute in order to deepen my understanding of the Catholic faith.

In a class with Father Francis Martin on the nature of the human person and the meaning of gender, he made reference to a United Nations meeting presenting confusing ideas about gender. (Specifically: It was being advocated that there were nine intrinsic genders, not two!)

These claims had become a hotbed for crafting new ideologies regarding the human person, human sexuality and gender. The aim in the U.N. was to turn those ideas into international public policy.

Around that time, I attended a U.N. Beijing+5 Conference on the status of women, as a freelance lobbyist for a pro-life group. I had no idea what I was doing, but it was eye-opening.

I am not sure I made an impact on the conference, but the conference made a big impact on me. Seeing the cultural battle that was taking place on the U.N. floor over the understanding of the human person, centered on the question of what is true human dignity, awakened in me a desire to do more.

Shortly after, I accepted a job under the Bush administration at the U.S. Agency for International Development, overseeing global abstinence-education programming as a viable means to HIV/AIDS prevention. Later, I concentrated my efforts in domestic abstinence-education programming in the Department of Health and Human Services.

I later moved to the Office of the Secretary in Health and Human Services: working on a range of global health-policy issues, particularly the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The U.S. is the largest contributor to the Global Fund, so our office was involved in the daily interactions and policy decisions.

It was exciting to work collaboratively with a U.S. team to advance concrete solutions to real-world problems of poverty, disease and malnutrition that rob millions of people of their sense of dignity.

What made you decide to leave the government’s global and domestic health agencies and programs to return to the world of nonprofit NGOs (non-governmental organizations)?

Because of my pro-life views, when the new administration arrived in 2009, I immediately began to feel uncomfortable. Within the first days of the administration, the Mexico City Policy (blocking federal aid from being allocated toward financing abortions in the developing world) was overturned.

Shortly afterwards, the legal age for purchasing Plan B, a morning-after pill, over the counter, was changed from 18 to 17.

Around the same time, previously untouchable embryonic stem cells were released for federally funded research, and the abstinence-education office I had once worked for was dissolved, making way for a new “office for adolescent health” at HHS.

It was clear to me that, while there was still great work to be done in global health, while these federal agencies do many worthwhile and noble things for the less privileged around the world, and while I worked with many amazing and professional colleagues in global health, my conscience was not going to be at rest working under this new direction.

It was about that time that a friend approached me and floated the idea of coming to work for Family Research Council and dedicating myself full-time to education, outreach and conscience-building on culture-of-life issues. I jumped at the chance.

What has been your experience so far in this new office of the Center for Human Dignity at Family Research Council?

A combination of feeling completely inadequate and daunted by the size of the task, as well as an absolute sense of hope, and the sense that God has prepared me for this, nor will he leave me to do this work on my own.

I have also had the experience of being deeply edified by so many pro-life front liners. Honestly, I have been surprised at how many reasons for hope I come across on a daily basis.

My primary task is to watch and mark the battles over culture that are constantly at play all around us, and I guess I assumed I would find it discouraging. I have been surprised at how encouraging the signs are for our side.

Could you share one of these signs of hope with us?
I think a recent sign was the March for Life here in Washington in January. I was encouraged by the number of young people at the march, both women and men: so smart and so put-together.

They really are the Church of today. And there was such an energy. It was impressive.

What other signs of hope have you encountered in these months?

There are so many, and they are usually the stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary things in their corner of the world. For instance: a grandmother in Ohio who felt called to a sonogram ministry. She parks across the street from abortion clinics and offers women free sonograms before entering the clinic. She can single-handedly count close to 1,500 babies whose mothers were abortion-minded but chose life after seeing the sonogram of their unborn child. There were originally two clinics in that town. One has shut down and the other is on its way to shutting down. This woman plays a large part in that.

This is the face of the pro-life movement: It is the everyday people who in their seemingly small way are making a big impact on culture by standing up for life in their own back yards and awakening the consciences of others. This is where the future success of the pro-life movement lies.

What are the big frontiers and challenges you have in front of you in the Center for Human Dignity?

I think the abortion issue will continue to be the front-runner issue of the pro-life movement, along with all of the issues that touch on life-and-death ethics. But I would also like to concentrate on building more consciousness around an integral vision of human dignity, with a special emphasis on women’s dignity and women-centered programs in domestic development.

Of course, the biggest challenge is not finding the right message; we have the message. But we need to continue to seek ways to articulate that message effectively through all of the modes of modern communication, in order to reach as many people as possible. In that sense, I think the real goal continues to be in the education of the consciences of everyday Americans through forms of mass media, Internet, pop culture, etc.

The public debate on human dignity should be at the realm of philosophy, social science and culture. It is not a religious debate, at least not in our approach.

What do you hope to accomplish?

As much as I can do to bring to light the untruths of the culture of death and the policies they lead to, which are not good for women or good for people in general. I would like to help provide concrete alternatives that are more in accord with human dignity.

A large part of my work will be keeping the public informed. In the coming months I will be visiting local grassroots groups in California, Michigan and Virginia.

Through the Center for Human Dignity we hope to continue awakening the consciences of the American people on all issues of public policy and debate that touch on the fundamental principles of the dignity of human person.

As a nation, it is vital that we get these principles right. So much rests on how we value the human person, and the dignity with which we treat her. It is a question of cultural life or death. So I am hoping you are going to be seeing a lot of me.

Kirsten Evans writes from Washington, D.C.