Today the Church offers a Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children. Several years ago I came across a well written and thought out post by Julia Smucker. She holds a master’s degree in Systematic Theology from Saint John’s School of Theology in Collegeville, Minnesota. Since being received into the Catholic Church in 2010, she has sought to integrate the gifts of her Mennonite heritage within her newfound ecclesial home. Her commitment to nonviolence has found deep resonance with Catholic teaching on the dignity of all human life.
While traveling recently, I saw a button on someone’s backpack that proclaimed, “My body, my choice.” The allusion was clear, and I pondered how much importance our society places on choice. We all make choices, but is it an absolute value by which to measure everything else? Can there be choice without responsibility? Equally striking was the word “my,” carrying with it the idea that choice is a private possession, that one person can make choices in isolation. Should my choices matter only to me – even if another body is dependent on mine?
The individualism implied in this slogan has driven the abortion debate in endless circles. The tendency on both sides to frame their arguments almost exclusively in terms of individual rights has led to something of a stalemate in the public square: a woman’s right to choose comes up against a child’s right to live. Individuals do of course have genuine rights that must be respected, but to move beyond the current dead ends, something more is needed. The individual does not exist in isolation, but rather in relation to and as part of community and society. Rights do not exist in isolation, but rather they relate to certain values.
Considering values helps to shed light on the meaning of rights. We can affirm a number of positive goods at once, but also insist that these goods be rightly prioritized. Nobody is likely to deny that life is a good, and, when kept in healthy perspective, so is choice.
But when anyone’s choice is deemed more valuable than anyone’s life, the priority of values is out of order. When a woman’s choice not to be pregnant trumps the life of her child, when parents’ choices endanger their children either before or after they are born, when a disturbed man’s choice to stockpile an armory results in the death of innocents, when someone’s choice to die solely on their own terms becomes more precious to them than life itself – in all of these cases, choice has been made an idol, at a grave human cost.
When understood in relation to what is most valuable, rights can bring real depth to the conversation. For instance, Catholics believe that a person’s right to life neither begins nor ends at birth but extends throughout one’s natural life. And since this right is rooted in the dignity we all share as bearers of the image of God, it is bigger than the right to simply remain alive. This informs how we should treat everyone, especially those whose human dignity is most often disregarded: the unborn, the poor, immigrants, the imprisoned, the ill and the disabled. To see life as a value and a right is to recognize that all people deserve to be treated with dignity.
When human dignity, or even life itself, is subordinated to individual choice, it often leads to what Blessed John Paul II famously termed the “culture of death.” If we’re to find a cure for this social ill, it requires a recognition that human beings are made to live interdependently. Our choices are not ours alone: they affect others beyond ourselves. And no choice is of greater value than any life.
This year the March for Life will be virtual. The organizers wrote:
The protection of all of those who participate in the annual March, as well as the many law enforcement personnel and others who work tirelessly each year to ensure a safe and peaceful event, is a top priority of the March for Life. In light of the fact that we are in the midst of a pandemic which may be peaking, and in view of the heightened pressures that law enforcement officers and others are currently facing in and around the Capitol, this year’s March for Life will look different.
The annual rally will take place virtually and we are asking all participants to stay home and to join the March virtually. We will invite a small group of pro-life leaders from across the country to march in Washington, DC this year. These leaders will represent pro-life Americans everywhere who, each in their own unique ways, work to make abortion unthinkable and build a culture where every human life is valued and protected.
You can watch the livestream of the March for Life beginning at 11 a.m. ET. If you would like to watch virtually participate, register here.