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What Doesn’t Kill You
Mark Ruffalo’s movie Just like Heaven was an unexpected contribution to the culture of life.

Mark Ruffalo and Reese Witherspoon in Just Like Heaven (DreamWorks)

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Kathryn Jean Lopez

Mark Ruffalo is a mainstay of the contemporary “rom-com” genre of movies. He’s also one of NARAL Pro-Choice America’s favorite actors for his abortion activism.

In fact, it was only the second day of 2014 when he found himself discussing the issue on Twitter.

What he may not realize is that he did more for advancing the cause of building a culture of life in one of his roles than just about any tweet or statement from an actor ever will.

In the 2005 movie Just like Heaven, Ruffalo played a role that took a light hand to the challenges of life and death and modern health care as his character fell in love with a woman in a coma. The storyline was fanciful, but it presented audiences with an underlying understanding of an issue that we fight over and that families have to go to court over: whether there is a living human being in that hospital bed, not a “vegetable” or whatever dehumanizing word ethicists choose to use in a case like Terri Schiavo’s, whose life was ended that same year. Perhaps Ruffalo would have had misgivings had he had been asked to play a young father who realizes his deep love for his child before delivery, but he did play a role that may have helped us be a little more attentive and respectful to life, and he did so outside the heated confines of political debate, where hearts may be more open.

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What Ruffalo may not realize is how much common ground is expressed in his most compelling sentiments presented as “choice” activism — born of compassion for his mother and other women in the same situation.

Writing in defense of an illegal abortion his mother had before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, handed down 41 years ago this month, Ruffalo wrote this past summer: “When I heard the story I was aghast by the lowliness of a society that would make a woman do that. I could not understand its lack of humanity; today is no different.”

Imagine the shame and pain and desperation that would get a woman to such a place. Maybe you don’t have to imagine. How about doing our best to make sure no woman ever has to go there — illegally or legally? Save for the most strident activists, most Americans don’t believe abortion to be a good. So how about focusing on alternatives instead of being stuck on politicians’ hapless or insensitive or merely controversial statements and that which most divides? When we’re honest about it, that is the beauty of some of the recent legislative moves to protect children born alive after an abortion attempt and to restrict abortions in the latest stages of pregnancy. A lot of Americans still don’t realize that abortion even in the third trimester, in many cases, was made legal four decades ago. There’s a reason legal abortion is masked in words like choice and health: We’re not actually a brutal people — well, at least not consciously. That’s why, for the abortion industry to survive, it needs to make sure details are glossed over. The problem, of course, is that if we believe in conscience, we’re going to have something to answer for to history and to our Maker. Ignorance might be bliss in an election cycle, but in the long term we know better.

We’re seeing this now in the surprise New Year’s Eve move by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to hold off penalties for the Little Sisters of the Poor’s noncompliance with the Obama administration’s abortion-drug, contraception, and sterilization mandate. After the story of lawsuits against the Department of Health and Human Services went largely untold or dismissed for months, suddenly the story of the forced narrowing of religious liberty — with the mandate targeting the likes of nuns running elder-care homes — in America is hard to avoid.

In his Christmas message, Pope Francis implored Christians to “pause before the Child of Bethlehem.” He continued: “Let us allow our hearts to be touched, let us not fear this. Let us not fear that our hearts be moved. We need this! Let us allow ourselves to be warmed by the tenderness of God; we need his caress. God’s caresses do not harm us. They give us peace and strength. We need his caresses.”

It’s hard to know how such talk of the tenderness of God is received in a cynical culture numbed by redefinitions of fundamentals that keep us from confronting wounds. We tend to both overcomplicate matters and distract ourselves from what is right in front of us.

We debate about abortion, with half of us pretending it’s all a matter of women’s health and freedom. But what we’re really doing, in so many of our highest-profile campaigns and exchanges, is reinforcing a culture of violence of the most intimate sort — piercing wounds against motherhood and fatherhood, and ending the lives of children. Nothing tender there.

As we begin a new year with Christmas once again right there in the background, can the image of a mother and child, with the woman’s loving husband standing protectively by, in unexpected and by human standards terrifying circumstances help us?

“I actually trust the women I know. I trust them with their choices, I trust them with their bodies and I trust them with their children,” Ruffalo has written. Children belong to mothers only? What a far cry that is from the liberal embrace of “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child”! Ruffalo is himself a father. How about washing away this false disconnect? Putting aside some of the political rhetoric, perhaps we can begin again and acknowledge that each child has a mother and a father and that we have a cultural responsibility to support and encourage them to know and rise to the occasion of parenthood?

In the days after Christmas a cable-news host presided over a conversation that made fun of the Romney family for having diversity in their family Christmas-card photo, on account of an adopted grandson. Thanks be to God for loving families who open their doors to children who need a family. Rather than doubling down on the misery of abortion, let’s put out the welcome mats to life in 2014. Just like Heaven, there can be tenderness here too — even in social media, even on what we’ve known as the most contentious of issues.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.



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