Culture

Remembering Henry Hyde: Hero of the Pro-Life Movement

Henry Hyde with Pope Benedict at the Vatican in 2006.
Reflecting on the legacy of the Illinois congressman ten years after his death

Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of the greatest champion the pro-life cause has ever known, Representative Henry J. Hyde of Illinois. It is hard to believe that this physical and moral giant of a man is gone, much less that it has been a decade since he passed away. The soundtrack of his voice on the House floor plays easily in the mind — there have been few orators in his league, and even fewer who had his wit and genius of expression.

But there is this comfort, always this comfort, in marking the years since his death: At least 600,000 of our fellow Americans under the age of ten are alive today because of the famous amendment that bears his name, the one that treats abortion for what it is — the antithesis of medicine, a violation of the fundamental right of the most vulnerable human beings in our midst.

The pro-life movement is odd in many ways, but none odder than this: Most of those who have been involved in leading advocacy roles know it as an inescapable but thankless task. The cause does not lack for heroes and heroines, for individuals who have opened pregnancy-help centers, answered calls from distressed women in the middle of the night, counseled fathers anxious but powerless to save a child they helped conceive. Nor does it lack for unusually articulate voices — writers such as Joe Sobran, Ellen Fielding Wilson, Mary Meehan, Nat Hentoff — of rigorous thought and ringing compassion. Life itself was the labor of their lifetime, but there are few accolades for their efforts. The Human Life Foundation has regularly honored them, but outside of the overlapping circles of the life issues, their names are hardly household words.

It’s a big world, and there are many causes, so this is likely as it must be.

But Henry Hyde should be an exception to the rule. His name and his story should be household words. He served as the public witness of a civil-rights issue all the more significant for not being recognized as such in standard histories. He was the conscience of the nation on a matter regarding which our consciences are still half-asleep. He spoke to the issue better than any advocate has, before or since. He placed the issue in a wider perspective that was as powerful as it was subtle, speaking of welcoming the stranger, defending the “expendable,” honoring the disabled, and protecting the abandoned.

I have lived in Washington for nearly four decades now, and I can remember no other legislator, in either chamber or on any other topic, for whom the opposing members of Congress would wait to hear speak, whatever their views on abortion. Henry’s was by custom and ceremony the last word on the debate over his annual amendment. The amendment always carried. At the beginning, it had solid support in both parties. But all sides would sit and turn their attention to him as he rose in the well of the House. He brought tears to the eyes and enemies to his side.

The very odd pro-life movement does not generally erect memorials and statues of its past leaders. Given how even these customary tributes have become objects of contention and destruction, that may be just as well. But like the walls of the Lincoln Memorial, and in kinship with some of the expressions found there, the noble phrases of Henry Hyde should be inscribed in some public place. They represent the best of our national ideals.

There must be something about the Illinois soil, the Land of Lincoln, that can produce individuals, particularly among Republicans, who get their party’s deepest ideas right and express them with vision. Lincoln stands alone, of course, as the most celebrated of presidents at our hour of greatest national peril. But Henry Hyde of Chicago and Ronald Reagan of Dixon bear witness to the same tradition. Lincoln said that “nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.” On Reagan’s cenotaph is his summation, “I know in my heart that man is good/That what is right will always eventually triumph/And there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”

Henry Hyde said:

For over two centuries of our national history, we have struggled to create a society of inclusion — we keep widening the circle of those for whom we are responsible — the aged, the infirm, the poor. Slaves were freed, women were enfranchised, civil-rights and voting-rights acts were passed, our public spaces made accessible to the handicapped, Social Security for the elderly — all in the name of widening the circle of inclusion and protection.

This great trajectory in our national history has been shattered by Roe v. Wade and its progeny. By denying an entire class of human beings the welcome and protection of our laws, we have betrayed the best in our tradition.

Henry Hyde’s eloquence regarding the unborn extended to many other topics as well, most notably our nation’s security, the brutality of Communist regimes and unjust imprisonment, the scourge of drugs, renewing our Constitution, and restoring economic growth and opportunity. His work on pro-life measures sometimes overshadowed in public recognition his achievements in policy, but in truth they were of a piece — they all found their root in the “purpose and worth,” the inherent dignity, that makes every human life valuable and deserving of true freedom.

No memorial of the gentleman from Illinois can omit his wife Jeanne, who preceded him in death by 15 years. The Lord blessed me to know them both. I had heard the story of Henry’s lockdown defense against the great George Mikan that led to Georgetown’s upset of DePaul in the national basketball championship semifinal in 1942–43. But I did not know that Jeanne had met Henry at one of his basketball games.

Jeanne was an exuberant woman, overflowing with compassion and concern for others. Working with her on the Reagan correspondence staff, we knew from the start who would draft the letters to grieving parents, to mothers worried about the family income or an unresponsive government bureau, or to a jobless father. Jeanne would know how to answer. She complemented Henry beautifully, and she stood, as he did, for the sanctity of life.

When she fell ill and entered a nursing home in Arlington, Va., the city in which my family then lived, word circulated among her former colleagues, and we offered prayers for her and the family. I knew where she was being cared for, but had never visited, much to my shame ever after, since she was so close by and had taught by her example how much small kindnesses and courtesies can mean.

One morning in July of 1992, I got in the family car to drive to work in downtown D.C. I was not a person who then put much stock in “words from above,” angelic whispers. But there it was — an almost-spoken voice that said to me, “You must visit Jeanne today.”

I turned the car around and drove the few short miles to the nursing home. It turned out to be Jeanne’s last hours. Her family was gathered around her bed, talking and reminiscing, and telling her of their love. Stranger as I was in the most profound sense at such a moment, Henry welcomed me there for that time. We had known each other over drafts of amendments, strategy meetings, speech texts, and receptions. It had all seemed important. But here was what was first: love, family, the purpose and worth of this family’s extraordinary life, and the good they did with it.

I said a quick goodbye to Henry when the attendants briefly sent us outside. I had admired him as a towering figure of intellect and political leadership. I saw him that day as a husband and a father, already beginning to grieve, and I understood him as an even more towering man than I had known before.

Henry J. Hyde, we miss you this decade on. Pray as we must for future leaders of your character, we will not see your like again.

READ MORE:

Make the Hyde Amendment Permanent

Pro-Life Future: Hospitality & Generosity, Beyond Democrats vs. Republicans

Hillary’s Hyde Amendment Horror

– Chuck Donovan is the president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the education and research arm of SBA List.

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