Building a Whole Life Culture: The Culture of Death Includes Poverty, Hunger, Oppression, Exploitation, and Abortion

Recently, the Center for Medical Progress has shed an interrogating light on the “culture of death” by exposing Planned Parenthood for what may very well be the sale of fetal tissue and body parts for research and other scientific purposes. There isn’t much I can add to the myriad of Catholic voices that have spoken on the issue. I believe, no matter what stance you take on the legality of their actions, the behavior in the videos is heinous and disturbing. Not just the ones of Planned Parenthood executives’ flippant attitudes when negotiating over compensation for these tissues and parts, but also the ones that document doctors sifting through aborted fetuses and picking out body parts from a large glass dish. I believe this is one situation that epitomizes what Pope Francis means when he talks about the throwaway culture in his encyclical Laudato Si.

While these videos were making the rounds, I read an article that reported an African-American senator from Ohio (Democrat Bill Patmon) had called out the #BlackLivesMatter movement for not protesting outside of Planned Parenthood because a high number of mothers who came in for abortions at Planned Parenthood in his district were African-American. His point is valid. Abortion takes away a life – since black lives matter, these black lives in the womb also matter. However, the Senator’s stance doesn’t address the bigger issue at hand. The question that sits with me is, “What in our society leads women in these circumstances to believe it’s necessary or desirable to terminate a pregnancy?”

I believe that “the culture of death” viciously permeates all aspects of our culture. Saint John Paul II used this term throughout his encyclical Evangelium Vitae in reference to a culture that values efficiency and the subjugation of the vulnerable of society through structures of sin created by the powerful (12). He uses this idea to focus on the plight of aborted children and euthanized elders, but it applies to other structures of sin that deprive human beings of a right to live happy and healthy and holy and free, such as poverty, hunger, and political oppression. Pope Francis also touches on this idea in Laudato Si by advocating a holistic understanding of ecology that not only protects the environment, but also unborn children, the poor, and the marginalized of our world. Francis writes, “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society” (91).

We must understand that the culture of death is a pervasive aspect of our society. The culture of death is found in a society that believes poor people who work multiple jobs need to “stop being lazy” and just work harder. The culture of death is found in a society where organizations believe that the best way to stop or prevent someone from perpetrating violence is inevitably through more violence. The culture of death is found in a society where black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men. It is a gross misunderstanding of the “culture of death” to focus our efforts solely on defunding an organization like Planned Parenthood, while completely ignoring the judicial, economic, and social systems that also perpetuate this culture.

We must ensure that every action that disrespects human life, such as abortion, racism, poverty, and euthanasia, is addressed. It’s been great to see so many peers take a stance on social media and create awareness about abortion and Planned Parenthood. I stand with them, and I hope we can right this injustice. However, I’m writing to challenge everyone who is adamant on this issue not to stop there. Be just as vocal about poverty, total war, capital punishment, education issues, and the unequal distribution of wealth in this country and around the world. Post videos about the arrest and death of Sandra Bland, the recent murder of Sam Dubose, Foxconn Technology Group, Nike, human trafficking of children in the United States, and other situations where the culture of death manifests itself in the world. We will not bring about a “culture of life” if we do not work to change the underlying structures that lead to a culture of death.

Jeff Wallace is a campus minister at Merrimack College and regular contributor to God in All Things.


The Promise and Limits of Finding the Common Ground on Abortion

A common refrain among Catholics who believe that abortion should be legal is that “no one is pro-abortion.” That’s just not true. This is not a disagreement between culture warriors and those who prefer a different approach. It is between those who can accept reality and those who won’t. Some people simply have no moral qualms about aborting a child, just as some people had no problem with one human being owning another. There were pro-slavery tracts that defined it as a positive social good. And now, with the release of Katha Pollitt’s Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights and articles praising it, we are seeing similar positive affirmations of abortion’s positive role in society and the rejection of the idea that it is negative in any way.

Just look at the rhetoric being used:

They have landed us in the era of the “awfulization” of abortion, Pollitt writes, where even pro-choicers are “falling all over themselves” to use words like “thorny,” “vexed,” “complex,” and “difficult” instead of doing what they should be doing, which is saying out loud that abortion is a positive social good….

“Safe, legal and rare,” “Permit but discourage”—these updated slogans have left the pro-choice side advocating the neurotic position that you can have an abortion but only if you feel “really really bad about it,” Pollitt writes.

And here, as well:

Most people, no matter their politics, have absorbed some aspect of the right-wing narrative that abortions are uniformly harrowing and traumatic, when for many women they are brief events that leave no lasting mark….

The fact is that almost everyone probably knows someone who has had an abortion, and we all need to talk about it more honestly. This applies, most of all, to politicians who officially support reproductive rights and yet defend them in such sluggish and spiritless terms—think of Hillary Clinton’s characterization of abortion as a “sad, even tragic choice,” or John Kerry’s vow to make it “the rarest thing in the world.”….

They should be advocating for abortion as a fundamental, safe, and accessible medical option. The immorality, these representatives should make clear, is not in ending pregnancies, but in deepening inequality by denying poor women federal funding for legal abortion via the Hyde Amendment.

I am from the wing of the pro-life movement that refuses to call people pro-aborts or baby killers. When writing, I often use ‘pro-abortion rights,’ which is the standard term for those who aim to be objective when presenting facts in terms of identifying people who support legal access to abortion. In private conversations with supporters of legal abortion, it is not uncommon for me to use the term “pro-choice”, a term that I think is a fairly absurd euphemism, but the preferred language of those with whom I am trying to engage in dialogue. So my aim is not to demonize everyone who identifies as pro-choice or opposes the rights of unborn children.

It is merely to highlight the simple inaccuracy of the claim that no one is pro-abortion. Some people simply do not see abortion as a tragedy, let alone a morally questionable act. And the truth is that this extreme mentality is disproportionately concentrated in those with power, influence, and wealth. Key Democratic Party fundraisers and elites are far more likely to embrace “abortion on demand and without apology” than the average Democrat. These voices are also more common in the media and academia than among the public. That is why this extremism cannot simply be ignored.

A second important reason why recognizing what people actually believe matters is because it allows one to see who is open to dialogue and compromise. You cannot find common ground when it does not exist. If someone thinks abortion is a tragedy, but remains pro-abortion rights, opponents of abortion can still try to find ways to work together with this person to drive down the abortion rate. If someone sees it as a legitimate form of birth control to be used for any reason without any qualms, there is little likelihood of finding common ground.

I wish it was true that “no one is pro-abortion.” But it is not. If we want to work across the abortion divide to drive down the abortion rate, we must start by coming to grips with this reality. Only then will we be able to find dependable partners in assisting pregnant women and saving unborn lives.


A Very Catholic Week: The March for Life, Selma, and Immigration Reform

There are three things I heard over the past week that are stuck in my head.

First, “We are the pro-life generation!” Thousands of young people chanted this refrain at last Thursday’s March for Life in Washington.

Then, “We’re not asking – we’re demanding! Give us the vote!” This was a masterful Daniel Oyelowo portraying Martin Luther King, Jr., in the film Selma, which I saw on Saturday. In the scene, the minister and civil rights leader is speaking to a church congregation of African Americans who had systematically been blocked from registering to vote in Selma, Alabama.

Finally, “La iglesia está con ustedes,” or “The Church stands with you.” This was the message delivered by Bishop Sullivan and pastor Fr. Vince Guest at an information session on President Obama’s immigration executive action at the Parish of the Holy Cross in Bridgeton on Sunday. At the gathering, which drew over 500 people, experts from the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice described the president’s order, which could make thousands of undocumented South Jersey residents eligible for a type of temporary permission to stay in the United States.

Taken together, these lines and the events where I heard them offer some interesting points about discipleship. Here are three:

1) God takes sides; we should, too.

I once heard a conference speaker tell the story of an older brother, a younger sister, and a dad. The brother often picked on his sister, she would call out for Dad’s help, and he would intervene on her behalf. The son complained, “You always take her side! You love her more than me!” The father replied, “It’s because I love you both the same that I take her side. If someone ever picks on you, I’ll take your side.”

This anecdote gets at something crucial about God’s love. Of course He loves all his children the same amount. But like the dad in the story, that doesn’t mean he remains neutral in all conflicts. Instead, as we see over and over again in Scripture, he sides with the oppressed and suffering. Think of the enslaved Israelites in Egypt who Moses leads to freedom, the exiles in Babylon who God’s prophet Isaiah comforts, and the woman caught in adultery who Jesus defends from the angry, judgmental mob. To imitate God’s love in our own lives, we must be on the look-out for similar instances of the powerful targeting certain groups of people, and raise our voices with and for those in harm’s way. What incredible examples of this sort of faith in action I witnessed on the National Mall, at the movie theater, and at Holy Cross.

2) As we do our best to take the side of the poor and vulnerable consistently, we will find that we don’t fit neatly into the American political left/right binary.

I love the consistency of the message woven through my recent experiences: pro-life, pro-racial justice, pro-immigrant family. It reminded me of something Cardinal Timothy Dolan said during a speech a couple years ago. We are called to be comprehensive in our care for “the uns,” he said: “the un-employed; the un-insured; the un-wanted; the un-wed mother, and her innocent, fragile un-born baby in her womb; the un-documented; the un-housed; the un-healthy; the un-fed; the under-educated.”

I imagine a Catholic advocate phoning her Congressman four times in a given week, calling about various issues that the Catholic Church in the US is speaking up about. On Monday, she urges the representative to work toward the legal recognition of the unborn as human beings. On Tuesday, she asks him to protect social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid. On Wednesday, she voices opposition to physician-assisted suicide. On Thursday, she calls for a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the US. And on Friday, the congressman’s receptionist wonders aloud, “What party does that woman belong to, anyway?”

If we truly let our faith inform our politics, then that’s the question people might be asking themselves about us.

3) Siding with those who are vulnerable is risky.

In Selma, King gives a sermon in response to the racially motivated murder of a teenager in the town. “Those who have gone before us say, No more! No more!” he says. “That means protest! That means march! That means disturb the peace! That means jail! That means risk! That is hard!”

I think of the hundreds of parishioners who gathered at Holy Cross on Sunday – many of whom, who, despite the risk of deportation, keep working to provide for their families and secure civil rights. I feel for the young pro-life marchers whose peers look at them with suspicion or condescension. Selma invited me to remember those in who were beaten and killed because of their race, and to lift up those who continue the ongoing hard work of racial reconciliation across the country.

After the March for Life, I made it to Lindenwold just in time for our diocesan Respect Life Mass, hosted at the Parish Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Gospel passage selected for the Mass was Matthew’s Beatitudes: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me,” Jesus tells his followers. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

As risky as faith can be, Christ reminds us that he is with us always. There’s no finer solace – and no finer call to action – than that.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.


CJH: Turning Today’s Anti-abortion Movement into Tomorrow’s Pro-life Movement

Millennial co-founder Christopher Hale has a new article in Time. He writes:

To be truly pro-life, we cannot simply support a child’s right to be born, but also the right of the mother to expect substantial support from her community and from her government. We can’t be pro-life and anti-woman. It doesn’t work. And we can’t be pro-life and anti-government. It doesn’t work….

If today’s anti-abortion movement transforms into tomorrow’s pro-life movement, it can transcend the ideological divisions that plague our nation and proclaim a simple truth that can bind our people — especially the young — together: that everyone deserves a life, a family, and a future. But to do so, this pro-life generation must protect every person’s right to live, not just be born.

The full article can be read here.



Nothing New About Pope Francis’ Whole Life Approach

In Evangelli Gaudium and his other remarks on abortion, Pope Francis has embraced a whole life approach to the issue, linking it to other threats to human life and dignity. He sees it as a social justice issue that is deeply and gravely important, but not one that should drown out every other issue.

Even before he became the pope, Francis addressed the issue of abortion in this way. In 2010, in El Jesuita: Conversaciones con Jorge Bergoglio, he displayed a commitment to a comprehensive approach to abortion that would address the issue in its full complexity. He also tied it to other social justice issues, showing his whole life commitment to the defense of all life. He stated:

I consider (abortion) to be part of the battle in favor of life from the moment of conception until a dignified, natural death. This includes care of the mother during pregnancy, the existence of laws to protect the mother postpartum, and the need to ensure that children receive enough food, as well as providing health care throughout the whole length of a life, taking good care of our grandparents, and not resorting to euthanasia. Nor should we perpetuate a kind of killing through insufficient food or a nonexistent or deficient education, which are ways of depriving a person of a full life. If there is a conception for us to respect, there is a life for us to care for.

Francis sees the issue as both a social justice and human rights issue. Opposition to abortion should be based on consistently resisting a throwaway culture that dehumanizes and depersonalizes others. It is not simply a religious issue, but one that everyone who opposes the dehumanization of others should care about. And in 2010, he explained that science is on the side of those who defend the dignity and worth of each unborn child:

Science has taught us that from the moment of conception, the new being has its entire genetic code. It’s impressive. Therefore, it’s not a religious issue but, rather, a clear moral issue with a scientific basis, because we are in the presence of a human being.


Ending Discrimination Against Pregnant Women: An Interview with Thomas Berg

Numerous pro-life organizations recently filed a friend of the court brief in the Supreme Court for an important case on the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, Young v. United Parcel Service. Among those organizations filing the brief was Democrats For Life of America (DFLA). Millennial editor Robert Christian, a senior fellow at DFLA, interviewed University of St. Thomas (MN) law professor Thomas Berg, who worked on the brief on behalf of DFLA.

What’s at stake in Young v. United Parcel Service?

The issue is how effective the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA) will be in protecting pregnant working women from discrimination–in this case, discrimination about who will be allowed temporary reassignment to light-duty work because of temporary physical limitations. The lower courts here essentially said that an employer doesn’t discriminate against pregnant employees unless it singles pregnancy out as a condition it won’t accommodate–even when it gives accommodation to several other conditions but denies accommodation to pregnancy. This issue matters a lot for the effectiveness of this law, because many employers accommodate some employees but not others: are employers allowed to treat pregnant employees as badly as the worst-treated other employees? And it matters a lot whether pregnant working women are vulnerable to losing their jobs or benefits. Almost 2/3 of women who’ve given birth in the previous 12 months are in the labor force, and 40 percent of working women with children under 18 are the sole or primary bread-winner for their families.

What are the facts of the case?

Peggy Young, a driver for UPS, became pregnant; after several months her doctor recommended that she not lift more than 20 pounds. Young requested a temporary reassignment to light-duty work, which UPS did for three major categories of employees with analogous limits on their ability to work: disabled workers, those with on-the-job injuries, and those with various medical conditions who’d lost their commercial drivers’ licenses. But UPS denied Young’s request; she had to take unpaid leave for several months, during which she was without employer-provided health insurance. She sued under the PDA, which states that pregnant employees must be treated “the same … as other [employees] who are similar in their ability or inability to work.” But the lower courts said that even though Young had been treated worse than the large categories of accommodated employees with similar limiting conditions, she not been discriminated against because UPS had not specifically named pregnancy as a non-accommodated condition and had denied accommodation to other workers as well, e.g. those with off-the-job injuries. In effect, the lower court said that “non-discrimination” here means the employer can treat pregnant workers as badly as the worst-treated employees, even when it treats a lot of other employees better.

How would you respond to those who say that your position relies on an overly broad reading of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act?

The language of the statute is clear: employers must provide pregnant women with the same accommodations that they provide to other employees who “are similar in their ability or inability to work.” The lower courts essentially said that pregnancy could be treated differently because it’s an off-the-job injury, whereas UPS accommodated, e.g., on the job injuries. The statutory test, however, is not about the source of the condition but rather the employees’ ability to work. And allowing employers to treat pregnant women as poorly as they treat their least-accommodated workers is not consistent with the statutory purpose of giving real protection to pregnant women. Congress viewed pregnancy as an important condition, not an unimportant one that can be treated just as badly as the least-accommodated condition. The record contains many recognitions that the right to bear and raise children is fundamental and should be protected from economic pressure caused by the threat of losing a job or benefits. When large categories of workers are already accommodated, giving similar accommodations to pregnant women is only fair and is not likely to impose major additional costs on employers.

What do you think it means that so many pro-life groups have joined together on this? Is there a growing sense that a Whole Life agenda is necessary to be genuinely pro-life?

First and foremost, it was important to remind the Court that one of the clear purposes of the PDA was to protect women from economic pressure to terminate their pregnancies in order to keep their jobs or benefits–as then-Senator Biden put it, to protect women, especially low-income women, from being “encouraged to choose abortion as a means of surviving economically.” Back in 1978, pro-life groups joined pro-choice groups in supporting the PDA; the current case is important enough to the PDA’s effectiveness that many pro-life groups thought it important to speak again to support the statute’s purposes and effectiveness. It shows the importance of the issue here that 23 pro-life groups, with differing approaches and differing views on many other matters, issues, joined this brief. It’s a strong statement: pro-life groups believe that supporting pregnant women (including through effectively enforcing non-discrimination laws) is fundamentally pro-life.

Is this also a good area where people across the abortion divide can find common ground?

I think that’s true now, as it was in 1978 when the PDA was enacted. Pro-life and pro-abortion-rights groups come at this from different underlying views, but there’s an overlapping agreement that women shouldn’t be pressured by economic vulnerability into having abortions. The purpose of the brief is to argue for the proper interpretation of this case. But the filing of briefs across the abortion divide could have secondary effects. Beyond this case, there are other social and policy issues about how the workplace can become more equal and fair for women (and men) who are raising families. The attention given to the filing of these briefs could be an encouraging indicator that bipartisan, overlapping support is possible on these issues.