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Telling stories of human dignity

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Stories are important. Having just emerged from a season filled with Hallmark made-for-TV movies featuring children snuggled on grandpa’s lap, listening to tales of yore, we recognize the value of this most human form of communication.

Why does this matter to us? We are at a pivotal time in the building of a culture of life in our communities. We are seeing the culture shift rapidly toward a commodification of human life. And, with the erosion of the family and redefinition of marriage, traditional structures protecting young people are disappearing.

There are approximately 225 abortions each day in Southern California. Suicide is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, surpassing car accidents.  And sex trafficking is the second only to drug sales as the most lucrative business for gangs worldwide.

These statistics illustrate a global devaluing of the dignity of human life that reaches into every culture — affecting young and old, rich and poor, educated and illiterate.

When we talk with a young woman about making the choice for life for her unborn baby, we are starting too late. If she does not first value her own life, how is she able to understand the infinite value of the unborn life she is carrying?

Pope Francis is helping us to better understand that the success of our mission to end abortion, the most comprehensive destruction of human life the world has ever known, is inextricably tied to fighting every other attack against human dignity.  Ending the horror of abortion is paramount. But trying to end abortion in isolation is a losing battle.

In November 2013, New York magazine published a piece where 26 women shared their abortion stories in their own words.  The story began, “One in three women has an abortion by the age of 45.  How many ever talk about it?” This story is part of a national strategy to “normalize” abortion and get women talking about it as part of their life’s story.

The 26 stories were difficult to read. Some of the women regretted their decisions but many did not.  Two things caught my attention more than anything else: almost every woman spoke about her “baby” in some way — either saying the word “baby” itself or making reference to being a mother; and almost every experience was of a woman alone.

One woman wrote, “The second time, I was 24, living in Atlanta and into my career.  It hit me more emotionally. I thought, I really do want this baby, because I want a family, but I couldn’t imagine that with my boyfriend. I’d just taken a friend to have an abortion, so she took me. There’s something about having someone with you who’s been through the same thing that’s comforting.”

Another, “This guy forced himself on me. When the woman at the clinic went over my options, I bawled. Society is so focused on women being mothers. I felt selfish for not wanting to be a mom.”

And, “When my baby was little, our lights got turned off. I got depressed, kind of suicidal. Sometimes I’d think, I didn’t need to have this kid, and now he’s suffering with me. Last year, I got pregnant again. I drove myself. The clinic gave me copies of the ultrasound, and I keep them in a drawer. I never cried about it. I don’t feel guilty. I know being a parent isn’t all stars and sprinkles.”

If a woman knows the pregnancy she carries is a baby, a full-fledged member of the human community, how could she possibly seek to end its life?  For those of us inside the pro-life movement, no amount of economic hardship or domestic unrest can justify that action.

But this is the wrong point at which to start the conversation. To many women and men in our culture, a discussion of the value of their unborn children’s lives is meaningless in principle. They have been brought up with the paradigm that life has no inherent value, but can only have value assigned to it.  

I gave a talk earlier this year to an all-girls Catholic high school about gendercide, the systematic killing of baby girls, born and unborn, by cultures that put little value on their lives. As part of my research, I ran across an impassioned speech by Hillary Clinton at the 1995 Women’s Conference in Beijing during which she stated, “It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food or drowned or suffocated or their spines are broken simply because they are born girls. And, it is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families, and that includes being forced to have abortions or being sterilized against their will.”

No one would call Hillary Clinton a champion for the unborn! Yet, she makes a very important distinction here that our culture now takes for granted: It is a crime to force a woman to have an abortion but also a crime to not allow her to choose one for herself.

Women who choose abortion knowingly are doing so because the culture has given them permission to do so.  In fact, they have been told that they alone are the arbiters of whether the life of their unborn child has value or not. What a responsibility!  And this rhetoric, this cultural permission to deem some lives unworthy has huge ramifications in every social context.

We are living in a culture where we regularly “throw people away.” On this year’s Grandparents’ Day, Pope Francis challenged all people to place greater value on the elderly and decried old folks’ homes that are like “prisons,” saying the elderly are often “forgotten, hidden, neglected” in society, tantamount to a kind of euthanasia.

Those are strong words!

At other times, Pope Francis speaks of throwing away children through abortion, but also through poverty and lack of access to healthcare and education. He talks about throwing away the poor who we don’t even see, and also throwing away an entire generation of young people when there are no employment opportunities to be found.

Pope Francis is showing us that the way to combat the culture’s erosion of the dignity of human life is to shine a light on injustice and call people to see the beauty and value of every human life, convenient or inconvenient.

This is a discussion not of issues, which by definition have a moral and political hierarchy, but of human life, which is unique and must be examined individually and with empathy.

Pope Francis, poetically, tells us that all human life has inestimable value, “even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live for ever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”

This is what I mean when I talk about the “consistent ethic of life.”  

The consistent ethic of life, this way of looking at each person as a unique, unrepeatable gift from God, is the Church’s vision.  It is authentically “catholic” in that it embraces every person. This is God’s vision for his world. This is the Gospel of Life.

As Archbishop Gomez reminds us, “God’s vision is whole, and it can never be partial. God cannot see some lives as worthy and some as less worthy.  For God, every life is sacred and beautiful and filled with possibility — a life he chose to create, a treasure that is precious. So our vision, too, must be whole and never partial. Respect for life means that there are no exceptions to our love.”

This is the vision for OneLife LA, a celebration of the beauty and dignity of every human life from conception to natural death, taking place in Downtown LA on Jan. 17 — to evangelize Christ to the people of Los Angeles, particularly as we find him in the most vulnerable in our community.

We have invited amazing men and women to the OneLife LA stage to tell their stories of quiet courage and pro-life heroism — of everyday miracles. These stories highlight the value of community and that interdependent love which is necessary for our humanity and written into our very beings.  

OneLife LA’s storytellers are not, as the culture promotes, “the very people who have the expertise to lead us away from … false dichotomies of right and wrong toward a more peaceful future.” Rather, these are people who have lived through difficulties, have made the courageous choices that allow human life to flourish, and now support others to do the same.

These are stories that encourage those who carry deep sorrow from past choices to see that healing is not only possible, but a necessary part of every life, and that renewal in forgiveness allows for new life.

These are stories that change the paradigm from an individual saying, “I had no choice” to a family of faith saying, “We will help you make the choice for life.”

We see the power of storytelling, but so often fear that our everyday stories are no match for what we see and hear in the media. But the exact opposite is true. The more that we share our life-affirming stories with our families, on social media, and in gatherings such as OneLife LA, the more we shift the conversation to shine a light on the value of each and every human life.  If we can engage people through our stories of making the choice for life in every moment, then we can help the culture connect the dots to see that the same dignity applies to all people, including the unborn.

 

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