Politics & Policy

Respecting an Elder’s Hand

Eleanor McCullen outside the Supreme Court in January. (Getty Images)
A way out of our throwaway culture of convenience and indifference.

Beware the grandmother who offers you love.

That was one common reaction to the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling striking down the Massachusetts’ buffer-zone law, which kept women and men who sought to offer help, counsel, and prayer 35 feet away from the entrances to abortion clinics.

“Every news story I’ve seen about Eleanor McCullen, the 77-year-old lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, refers to her as a grandmotherly type, cheery and sweet,” one Boston Globe columnist wrote in reaction to the Court’s decision, describing the justices as “naïve.” “I’m sure,” the columnist, Joanna Weiss, continued, “[Mrs. McCullen’s] pleasant nature is more effective than screaming and ranting.”

Weiss concluded with: “But if your grandmother stands — literally — in the way of your right to get health care, your grandmother still needs to be stopped.”

Mrs. McCullen, who has spent almost 14 years now devoted to this work of helping women who might want to know they have alternatives to abortion, is, indeed, a grandmother with a wonderful smile. A smile that expresses the kind of unconditional love that a woman walking into a Planned Parenthood clinic for an abortion might just have been aching for her entire life. How can she give it to this unexpected, unplanned child within her if she has never had it herself? McCullen doesn’t stand in the way of anyone’s health care. She offers a choice that a woman may have not known she had until she saw this welcoming sign of love standing on the sidewalk.

Many press reports in response to the ruling have stressed the need to “protect patients” from this.

“They make something that is already an emotional and horrific thing that is hard to choose to do, even harder,” one woman who lives near the Boston clinic where McCullen has been serving told a reporter.

Why is it so horrific? Because our law and culture have cast the question as a battle of mother vs. child, in which stopping anyone from speaking for the voiceless has all too often become political sport.

The Bostonian’s assertion underscores a point Justice Antonin Scalia makes in his concurring opinion: “Protecting people from speech they do not want to hear is not a function that the First Amendment allows the government to undertake in the public streets and sidewalks.” 

And certainly, furthermore, protecting people from speech you don’t want them to hear — even perhaps with the best of intentions — is not the job of the First Amendment.

What is truly naïve is to believe that women walk into abortion clinics knowing all their options — knowing that they can really choose to protect the life of their unborn child in an environment of support and love. Our nation has many women and men like Eleanor McCullen and her husband, Joe, who will provide just that — who will become family as a new family is built, with all its challenges and rewards.

Counter to the accusation (it has been described as the “lazy slander”) that pro-lifers don’t care about children after they are born, Eleanor becomes a real, supportive presence in these women’s lives, long-term. Joe says she’s on call as if she were an emergency-room doctor. An entire room in the McCullens’ house is full of baby clothes and toys, all donated. Eleanor will provide money for rent and food, and help mothers and fathers get jobs and the skills they need.

Mrs. McCullen saves lives, as she and her husband model marriage, as they support each other. (They both have children who look nothing like them named after them.) They are on the front line working to buttress a culture of life, and they are not alone.

In front of the Supreme Court in January — one week before the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal across the nation — Mrs. McCullen summoned better angels in a tribute — and rallying cry — to the United States.

She described her message as one of “gentleness and love.” People ask her, she reports, “‘How can you love the woman and man? You don’t know them.’”

“But guess what?” McCullen asked rhetorically. “What about all of those hurricanes and disasters? The Philippines and Katrina? What did our American people do? They got in planes and trains and buses and they built up the houses for the people.”

“Americans love people,” she said to the reporters. “We are a caring country, but unfortunately, the sad part is, we take the life of our young in the womb. But we are a genuine society, we are a loving society,” she observed. “We help people and that’s all I’m trying to do — help someone that’s desperate and abandoned. Just like those people in Katrina. I’m doing it a different way, but aren’t our people right there to help? We are generous, but we do take our children from the womb.”

“You have to love people,” she stressed  in her plea. And she explains: “The unborn child is the most defenseless, the most marginalized, the most fragile. In fact, the poorest of the poor is the child in the womb, and you know there was one day that to be in the womb, it was a safe place, but today the womb is the most unsafe place to be for a child.”

Asked to describe her work, McCullen said: “I see myself as a compassionate counselor, helping women. I don’t know these women, but I know they’re upset. They’re abandoned. They’re alone.” Her method is to say: “Don’t rush in. You can’t reverse this. Just wait.”

“I talk about adoption. There are some loving families that do open adoptions . . . We help with medical. We help with housing. . . . We have some resources. We take them to the archdiocese of Boston, and we have resources.”

As it happens, I’m writing from the National Right to Life Convention in Louisville, Ky. Alveda King, a niece of Martin Luther King Jr., is here on her life’s work of marching for the civil rights of the unborn. But, as is evident throughout the exhibit halls and speeches, this is about human life and dignity, period. “I used to talk about how we were treating our old people. Now I’m 64 and I’m really worried,” King says, with both urgency and a happy warrior’s good humor.

Are we a people who respect life? The beauty and wisdom that comes from sacrifice? We do have the right to choose, you know. And perhaps some sidewalk counseling — whether outside a Boston abortion clinic or on the steps of the Supreme Court — might help us see the better way. The walk McCullen is now free to make with women is a step in the direction of a robust culture of life, resting on the pillars of charity and sacrifice, and a step away from the throwaway culture of convenience and indifference we’ve become all too accustomed to.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is also founding 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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