Editor’s note: This article is based on an Oct. 25 talk to Toronto Right to Life that was entitled, “The Glass is Half Full: A Pro-Life Reflection on the Virtue of Hope.” It was less a philosophical or theological examination of hope than an examination of the opportunities and victories pro-lifers have had in recent years.
We need to understand the truth that sometimes clouds have silver linings. Too often, I am afraid, many pro-lifers focus on those clouds. Too many pro-lifers are of the opinion that the abortion issue is settled and that we have lost. If that is what someone believes to be true, there is little reason for that person to make abortion the deciding issue at the ballot box or to talk about the issue with friends, family and colleagues. If we have lost the abortion debate and it is lost forever, why should we do the heavy lifting in a futile effort to turn things around?
Perhaps you, too, at times, succumb to the temptation to feel that all is lost. Or perhaps you know people who hold pro-life views who think that there is no chance to re-open the abortion debate, that women killing their unborn babies is something we just have to live with.
Earlier this year, to begin the 25th year of publication of The Interim, we asked readers to submit their signs of hope for the pro-life movement. We had three positive responses – two offered Pope Benedict XVI and one suggested Prime Minister Stephen Harper. We also received about 20 responses questioning our relationship with reality because, as one letter stated, “There is no hope … we lost and we’re wasting our time trying to change laws and lobbying politicians … and holding signs that say ‘Abortion is murder.’”
I was extremely disappointed – and even more so when I discovered that at least one editorial advisory board member agreed. It is disappointing for many reasons, but the most important is that such a view is wrong – and sinful.
Despair is a sin
While this is not a theological or philosophical examination of the virtue of hope, this is nonetheless a vital point: when a person choosesdespair over hope, that person is committing a sin. For those of us who are Christian, how dare we believe that nine judges or 300 legislators or even 30 million Canadians are more powerful than God? For that is what we are believing when we say that we lost the abortion debate and have lost it forever – and that is a heresy.
Hope is both a gift and a virtue. Catholics understand hope to be one of the three theological virtues (along with faith and love) – an understanding shared by most Christians, even if they do not use the same terminology. Despair is the defeat of the virtue and the denial that God’s will shall be done.
But, you might say, in Canada, there are more than 100,000 abortions committed every year. A woman can kill the child growing inside her for any reason, at any time during pregnancy, usually at taxpayers’ expense. How can one be so optimistic and cheerful? To answer, one should consider the distinction that Fr. Richard John Neuhaus made during a speech at the International Pro-Life Conference in Toronto a few years ago, that optimism is a feel-good human emotion that may or may not be tied to reality, but it is dependent on the outlook of the subject (us). Hope is a gift from God to help us get through the rough times with the knowledge that all will work out as it should if we remain faithful.
But, you may point out, it is frustrating that things seem to be going so wrong today. What are the signs of hope?
For the sake of brevity, let us focus on Canada, but briefly cast the net a little wider, too, for the pro-life movement can learn from what works abroad and the cultural changes that are happening elsewhere.
Let us start by going back to the two suggestions sent to The Interimearlier this year: Stephen Harper and Pope Benedict. I think that the former presents limited opportunities for enthusiasm, but nonetheless there are some. Last year, the Conservative government shut down the Court Challenges Program, which funded radical causes. It also redefined the mission of the Secretariat of Women to focus not on feminist goals, but truly equal opportunity. The government seeks to privilege the family through tax policy and recognizes the importance of parents when it supports choice in childcare in place of a cookie-cutter universal childcare program. It have named several pro-life judges and reformed the process by which judges are selected. What all of this does is help level the playing field. For at least the past 25 years, the public square has favoured the abortion side – and it still does. But the more level the playing field, the easier it will be for pro-life Canadians to make the case to the public, but also to courts and legislatures. It is becoming more level, even if there is a long way to go.
Pope Benedict has repeatedly and forcefully spoken out against the evil of abortion and its attendant consequences, such as European depopulation; he has also challenged secularism and other ideologies that fuel the culture of death. His words and leadership inspire other church leaders – Catholic and non-Catholic – to also take public stands. I am sure that under his leadership, like that of his predecessor, orthodox moral theology will continue to flourish at Catholic institutions and seminaries will produce a greater number of priests faithful to the Magisterium. It will take time for all of this to filter down to the Catholics in the pews, but it will. The analogy of “trickling down” is often derided as change that is too small or insignificant to matter, but remember this: Niagara Falls once began as a trickle.
Newly engaged Christians
In Canada, Catholics have been joined in the culture wars by an increasing number of evangelicals. In the 1970s in the United States, it was mostly Catholics – bishops, priests and pro-life organizations led by lay people – that first stood against the judicial abomination of Roe v. Wade. It was not until another issue came to the forefront – Jimmy Carter’s attack on private Christian schools – that the sleeping evangelical giant was awakened. Likewise, in Canada, although a number of evangelicals have been part of the front-lines of the abortion battle over the past three decades, the recent battle against the legalization of same-sex “marriage” brought many more of them into the public square. Local, often ecumenical, organizations were formed to activate grassroots opponents of same-sex “marriage” and these organizations remain functioning today to do battle on other fronts.
These newly engaged Christian Canadians changed their voting habits. According to data collected by Andrew Grenville of Ipsos-Reid, two-thirds of weekly church-going Protestants supported the Conservative party (perceived to be more life and family friendly), up from just over 40 per cent in previous elections; furthermore, for the first since such polling has begun inquiring, a plurality of weekly Mass-going Catholics voted for the Conservatives. Asked why, the number one reason for evangelicals was moral values such as abortion and same-sex “marriage.” Values was the second most important reason for Catholics.
There is an awakening of conscience going on as more Christians understand and act upon their duty to protect traditional values, including the sanctity of human life in the public square. We’ve only begun to see the results of this realization, but if they can be sustained, the political sphere may soon begin to reflect the priorities of Christians.
More pro-life infrastructure
For years, the only pro-life think tank in Canada was the de Veber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research in Toronto; it produced great research, most notably Women’s Health After Abortion. But today there are also two new family-oriented think tanks in Ottawa – the Institute of Marriage and Family and the Institute for Canadian Values – which also look at abortion. There is also Trinity Western University’s Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa, which puts intelligent, ambitious and faithful Christian students near the seat of power, placing them in important internships. These groups will raise the profile of pro-life people and ideas in Ottawa and build on the work that Campaign Life Coalition, Life Canada, dozens of right to life groups, Focus on the Family, the Canada Family Action Coalition, the Catholic Civil Rights League, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, REAL Women, Equipping Christians for the Public Square Centre and other activist groups are doing across the country.
Notable among the new think tanks is Andrea Mrozek of the IMFC, formerly of The Western Standard, who has written papers and articles dealing with sex-selection abortions, the dangers of contraception and abortion and depression. Some of these writings appeared in the National Post, generating further discussion, including letters to the editor, that went on for, in one case, nearly two weeks. The Postalso wrote a long, front-page story earlier this year on “the ‘A’-word” about how abortion is seldom covered in the media. What was most notable about this story was that it revealed what pro-lifers have long known: that many doctors refuse to be involved in abortion, laying bare the lie that abortion is a part of normal medical practice. When the average Canadian reads that some doctors are not comfortable with abortion, it will raise questions in their minds about the procedure. That is, it will open their minds about abortion.
The mainstream media is being challenged by the internet. There are dozens of pro-life news and opinion publications online, including two excellent sources here in Canada: LifeSiteNews.com and Life Immeasurable. Twenty years ago, people interested in keeping up to date about developments on moral issues had to subscribe to specialty publications that were often out-of-date by the time they arrived in the mailbox. Today, news from around the globe that affects life and family life is available instantly, usually at no cost, on the internet. This information is also available to the intellectually curious or anyone who happens to stumble upon it while browsing the web. That’s why The Interimis in the middle of a process to put our entire 25-year archive online – so students or anyone else interested in the issue can access all the important, often exclusive stories the paper has published, especially from the early years of the pro-life movement.
The internet also enables activism both by spreading timely information and directives and making it easier to pass this information on to dozens, hundreds and thousands of people quickly and inexpensively. An example: in 2004, when LifeSite published a story on Lambton College preventing the meeting of a pro-life club, the Sarnia college received dozens of complaints, including from pro-lifers in the United States and overseas.
The internet, through sites like Facebook, allows people, especially the young, to find those of like mind. On any university campus today, hundreds of young pro-lifers are meeting other pro-lifers through the internet. They no longer feel isolated and can protect themselves against pernicious influences by permitting students to surround themselves with others who share their values.
The Facebook phenomenon was highlighted this past summer when the CBC ran a contest, the Great Canadian Wishbook, which invited Facebook users to nominate their wish for Canada. Surprisingly, the number one wish was to end abortion. The number two wish was to keep abortion legal. What this illustrates is that contrary to the 2000 claim by then-prime minister Jean Chretien that we have social peace on abortion, we remain deeply divided over the issue. More important, young people are deeply divided on the issue.
The CBC contest also demonstrated the power of social networking on the web and the ability of pro-lifers to use it, in this case, more effectively than their opponents. This also contradicts the pervailing opinion that young people are nearly unanimously socially liberal. Not on abortion, it seems.
While we are talking about youth, it should be noted that this is the greatest reason to be hopeful. The next generation of pro-lifers – no, this generation of pro-lifers – are informed about the issue, moved to act on it and hopeful that victory will be theirs. It just might be.
If you have gone to the March for Life in Ottawa or Washington, you will be surrounded by people 25 years old and younger. The same is true with LifeChain. High school and university students are unafraid to say abortion is wrong. They are willing to challenge authority figures or their peers on this issue. They are fighting back when student unions or university administrations prevent them from forming pro-life clubs.
Furthermore, young people come to the issue in a more sophisticated manner than many of their predecessors who would often note that abortion is wrong because the unborn child is not a blob of cells but a human being; they have moved beyond the old argument that abortion is murder to cries that abortion is unfair. For some reason, that is more damning in our tolerant culture.
Today, the arguments are religious, moral, scientific and logical; we have a larger arsenal of arguments at our disposal and we can (and do) use them all. The most persuasive might be the movement from the status of the child (human or not) to whether that human being has equal rights. Using the rhetoric of the human and civil rights movement will win converts because that is where the culture is at today – the goal of egalitarianism will trump traditional structures of authority, so couching the issue in terms of human rights rather than merely an issue of right and wrong, speaks more clearly to people in 2007.
Pro-life signs, pro-life debates and pro-life strategies are reflecting this change and we are becoming more effective. We are winning converts.
People are changing their minds
In the United States, two polls released in October, sponsored by the Los Angeles Timesand Bloomberg News, both find a majority support an outright ban on abortion or restricting abortion only to cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. Pro-life activities are changing hearts and minds. According to Overbrook Research polling data released in June, American youth (18-35) are more likely to be pro-life than seniors and that many people in the 36-50 age cohort who used to be “pro-choice” are now pro-life or less adamantly pro-abortion.
Polls show a pro-life majority on most abortion-related issues even in Canada. Life Canada commissions an Environics poll each year to determine where Canadians stand on the issue, looking not merely, as many pollsters do, at whether people think abortion is right or wrong or should be legal or illegal, but in what circumstances abortion should be permitted or what restrictions should be placed on the abortion licence.
Last year, they discovered that 70 per cent of Canadians want informed consent for women; 55 per cent want parental notification laws; two-thirds oppose taxpayer funding for non-medically necessary abortions; 64 per cent want unborn victims of violence to be protected in law. While most of the numbers have stayed the same, in this year’s Life Canada poll, that number shot up to 72 per cent.
Why the increased support for an unborn victims of violence law? Probably because of news stories on recent tragedies where pregnant women were killed and the public became aware of the legal absurdity that the unborn child is not also considered a victim of the crime.
In the United States, incrementalist legislation – informed consent, waiting periods, defunding, clinic hygiene laws, etc. – have successfully reduced the number of abortions. (It should be noted that the first successful incremental limitation on slavery was a mandated improvement in the hygiene regulations on slave ships.) Every restriction decreases the number of babies killed in the womb. If the other side believes in choice, then it shouldn’t be so upset with measures that make that choice one that is more informed, even if the choice is in favour of life. But the pro-abortion side is not pro-choice; it rails against the slightest change. Every saved child is a victory for the pro-life movement.
In Canada, the default position is abortion – decidedly pro. Pro-lifers win when we make the issue choice. When the issue becomes choice, pro-lifers must move people toward life. This shift is occuring; Canadians (and Americans) are less enamoured with the grubby business of abortion and, at best, to use Bill Clinton’s dishonest language, want it to be safe, legal and rare. Until there is public support for making abortion unimaginable and prohibited, the focus has been on “rare” and it is working. Abortion numbers in the United States are down about one-third from the late 1980s, when there were more than 1.5 million surgical abortions each year.
Victory in censorship?
There are many, many more examples of signs of hope. From crisis pregnancy centres to the enthusiastic response of passers-by to LifeChains (remember how there use to be more middle fingers than thumbs up – that has changed), to Stephanie Gray’s Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform getting the pro-life message displayed in Calgary on moving trucks to the Silent No More witness of women (and men) harmed by abortion. We have an ever-increasing arsenal of strategies to employ to get a variety of pro-life messages to the public.
A word about the difficulty of getting the Silent No More witness heard by the larger public: the media and political elite want to silence pro-lifers because they cannot make convincing arguments against us anymore. Censorship is the tactic resorted to by cowards who know they cannot win an argument. They have to silence pro-lifers or the pro-abortion side will lose. Recognize censorship for what it is: we have won the argument.
We should say to politicians and the media, try to censor us if you want, but in the age of the internet, we’re going to get our message out. Try to ban university pro-life clubs and turn pro-lifers into free speech martyrs who will fight back with everything they have – and who will bring more people onside in the process.
Recognize the silver lining
Let us be clear. This is not an argument for self-delusion, to pretend that all is well when it clearly is not. But it is not hope that is self-delusion, but despair that is; despair comforts those who are not doing enough, telling them that their efforts would be in vain, so don’t bother. These pro-lifers see a half-empty glass and want to knock it over.
Rather, pro-lifers need to recognize a victory when they get one. To see opportunities in obstacles and view difficulties as challenges. To be thankful for the little wins and to learn from them as much as they do from defeat.
On a purely pragmatic level, not recognizing when we have made progress reduces the chances that we will take what works and use it successfully again. If incremental laws are reducing abortions, but we focus on the fact that abortion is still legal, the work to prevent more abortions by enacting further incremental restrictions is jeopardized.
Recognizing the small victories will also renew our sense of hope
Remember that lies cannot stand forever, that despair is a sin and that hope is a gift we must embrace. Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft says that “hope is the forgotten virtue of our time.” We must not lose the virtue entirely, especially those of us entrusted to protect the unborn and the vulnerable. Kreeft says, “Hope means that our heads do not bump up against the low ceiling of this world.” Our hope will lead not only to the eventual pro-life victoryk, but also to the raising of the low ceiling of this world heavenward.