‘For a renewed respect for all human life, from conception to natural death . . . ”
Seared in my memory is the sound of Kobi Cudjoe, gasping for air as he read that prayer.
He was one of the petition readers at the White Mass on October 23 at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, “Honoring the Gifts of Persons with Special Needs.” From his wheelchair, he pleaded on behalf of all those whose lives are so often undervalued by a society that sees their disability as a burden, and identifies them as disabled first and as persons second. Just weeks before, the same church had hosted the better-known Red Mass, for Supreme Court justices, lawyers, and other dignitaries. That one makes the news; this one, not so much.
It is all too easy to dehumanize the sick, the weak, and the disabled. A few days after the White Mass, Pulitzer Prize–winning commentator Paul Greenberg, addressing a crowd in Manhattan, said, “Verbicide must precede homicide.” To justify killing an unborn baby — whether it be a Down Syndrome baby, or one with a physical deformity, or the child of a mother who is desperate for one reason or another — one has to “speak of a fetus, not an unborn child,” Greenberg said. “Vocabulary remains the decisive turning point.”
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist was speaking to an audience gathered together by the folks at The Human Life Review to hail him as a “Great Defender of Life.”
He had, you see, changed his mind. “When Roe v. Wade was first pronounced from on high,” he told the assembly, “I welcomed it.” But over the years, he recalled, it took “more and more effort to justify” his position. To stay steady, it was imperative not to “look too closely at those sonograms.”
It didn’t come up at the dinner, but Greenberg’s comments stood as a welcome rejoinder to Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who opined on The O’Reilly Factor earlier in the week that a man can’t be 50 or 60 and change his mind on major issues. We all know what he was doing there — he was aiming for a primary blow — but he was not making a defensible point. Au contraire. By all means, bring on the converts! And may the saints go marching in.
It was not just on the issue of abortion that Greenberg changed his mind back in the 1980s. These things can be a house of cards: “Start off opposing abortion and you’ll start questioning euthanasia, too.” He recalled the death of Terri Schiavo, the cognitively impaired woman who was denied food and water for 13 “long days.” In the presence of her brother, Bobby Schindler — who now runs the Life and Hope Network, whichhelps families facing the kinds of pressures his family faced — Greenberg said, “It would have been kinder to shoot her.” Calling to mind the most intimate moments of our family lives, he took us to a generic hospital bed, “when grief has come long before death.” The dying loved one may not be able to respond verbally, but still you see an undeniable appreciation for a piece of cracked ice to soothe a dry mouth. The dying person may have a last-minute, last-days, inexplicable burst of energy, as if to say, “Thank you for having respect for my life; thank you for sticking with me and not casting me aside as a burden.” And yet, in the case of Terry Schiavo, “the law decreed” that she would have “no food and water in any form,” not even a shaving of ice.
“This is what we have come to. . . . This is the point we are reduced to.”
Most of us have moved on. Many have on abortion, too. “It is settled law,” Greenberg said, quoting defenders of legal abortion. “Another generation,” though, he reminded us, “was told Dred Scott v. Sandford was settled law.” But, Greenberg protested, “no good cause is forever lost.” Because, he added, “no cause is forever won in this world. It’s the nature of politics.” It’s the nature of life.
Greenberg quoted from a missive the novelist and medical doctor Walker Percy wrote in 1981: “To pro-abortionists: According to the opinion polls, it looks as if you may get your way.” I’m not sure Percy would write that any more. Polls are changing, and the language has gone from perversion to desperation. The same day that Greenberg was being honored for his change of heart and his subsequent leadership, abortion-advocacy groups were sending out hysterical e-mails about the supposed “Let Women Die Act” that the House of Representatives had passed. This is rank hyperbole; the bill simply prevents taxpayer dollars from being used to fund abortions, remedying a particularly egregious component of the health-care legislation passed in 2010.
Percy might not be surprised at the gradual, continuing turn of events. Back then, he wrote: “Picture the scene. A Galileo trial in reverse. The Supreme Court is cross-examining a high school biology teacher and admonishing him that of course it is only his personal opinion that the fertilized human ovum is an individual human life. He is enjoined not to teach his private beliefs at a public school. Like Galileo he caves in, submits, but in turning away is heard to murmur, ‘But it’s still alive!’”
The justifications for legal abortion have always gone against who we are, and against science and truth. Greenberg recalls trying in vain, in his pre-conversion days, to convince a pastor in his state, Mike Huckabee, that life and personhood are two completely different things.
Greenberg made no predictions, but he did make an assertion: “Win or lose, what’s important is that we bear witness” to the dignity of man. And with no exceptions. He recalled Whittaker Chambers, who walked away from the Communist party during the Cold War. “Chambers was convinced he was leaving the winning side for the losing side,” Greenberg recalled. “In the end the Party would win, but it didn’t matter. He would witness.” Today, standing alongside Mr. Cudjoe, speaking for those who have no voice, Paul Greenberg did just that.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.