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Monday, January 24, 2011

Stories and the Culture of Life

It is an anniversary, though not one to be celebrated. Thirty-eight years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its abominable decision, Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion. This past week we were afforded a glimpse behind the myth of Roe v. Wade as an instrument of female empowerment (where, by the way, is the national outrage and sympathy over these killings?). The reality of abortion, we saw, is far grislier, and has more to do with extremely vulnerable young people largely orphaned by the culture. Back on January 3rd, the New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat wrote a powerful piece, “The Unborn Paradox,” that is well worth contemplating on this sad anniversary. In the piece, Douthat considers an episode of the MTV reality show, “Teen Mom,” in which a teenage mother named Markai Durham, pregnant for the second time, chooses to have an abortion. Douthat observes:

MTV being MTV, the special’s attitude was resolutely pro-choice. But it was a heartbreaking spectacle, whatever your perspective. Durham and her boyfriend are the kind of young people our culture sets adrift — working-class and undereducated, with weak support networks, few authority figures, and no script for sexual maturity beyond the easily neglected admonition to always use a condom. Their televised agony was a case study in how abortion can simultaneously seem like a moral wrong and the only possible solution — because it promised to keep them out of poverty, and to let them give their first daughter opportunities they never had. 

Lack of substantive education…weak support networks…few authority figures…no script for sexual maturity beyond the easily neglected admonition to always use a condom. This is how the culture has “orphaned” now more than one generation of young people, and made it possible, as Douthat notes, for 22% of all pregnancies to end in abortion.

The young people of our culture, and the children they bring into this world, are in desperate need of our help. We need to extend to them the mercy and aid that will enable them to see that, in fact, they are not caught in the seeming Catch-22 Douthat describes. We need to help them experience the reality of the prophetic sentiments expressed by (soon-to-be-Blessed) Pope John Paul II in his 1995 Encyclical Letter, Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life):

I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does no doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone's right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life (no. 99). 

Examples of the friendly and practical expert help available to young women and the fathers of their children are Project Rachel and the Tepeyac Family Center in Fairfax, Virginia. At the level of education, such friendly and expert help takes the form of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture's Project Guadalupe. But while the Culture of Life that Pope John Paul II exhorted us to build urgently needs all such efforts, the legal foundations cannot be forgotten. A culture is in large part founded upon its laws, and as long as Roe v. Wade continues to serve as the keystone of our legal culture, young women like Markai Durham will not be given all the support they need. 

Yet a culture is also in large part defined, and its young people supported as well as entertained, by the stories it tells. The “unborn paradox” that Douthat talks about in his piece is the paradox that, in our culture, “no life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured [as unborn human life]. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.” This paradox is clearly on display in the movies and television shows offered to us by the entertainment industry. On the one hand, we have a recent spate of films that in certain, often tortured and mistaken, ways affirm the good of having children. I’m thinking of movies such as Bella (2006), Juno (2007), Waitress (2007), Knocked Up (2007), Baby Mama (2008), Away We Go (2009), The Back-Up Plan (2010), The Switch (2010), Life As We Know It (2010), Babies (2010), The Kids Are All Right (2010), and Due Date (2010). Yet on the other hand, we have an equal if not greater number of movies and shows that, if not openly depicting the choice to have an abortion, as in “Teen Mom,” trade in crass promiscuity and even pornography—thus continuing to spread the lie which had led us to the culture of Roe v. Wade, namely, that sex is not about children and family life, sex is just private fun.    

But as Horace said, “You can throw nature out with a pitchfork, but it will always come running back.” Despite MTV’s intentions, the pain of Markai Durham’s abortion left her with an important insight into the true nature of human sexuality. Douthat recounts the scene: “It’s left to Durham herself to cut through the evasion. Sitting with her boyfriend afterward, she begins to cry when he calls the embryo a “thing.” Gesturing to their infant daughter, she says, “A ‘thing’ can turn out like that. That’s what I remember ... ‘Nothing but a bunch of cells’ can be her.”

What a Culture of Life needs, too, are stories that deliberately, artfully, engagingly manifest this same insight.

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