Several events at the end of June call to mind John Paul II’s words in Evangelium Vitae describing the elements of a true humanitarian crisis. An act previously and nearly universally condemned, that hurts vulnerable lives, is celebrated as a “right” by people in the best position to protect those lives. How does John Paul II diagnose the cause of such a crisis? He identifies a serious misunderstanding of freedom—one that divorces freedom from solidarity, from reason and truth, and from the inevitability of human suffering.
Sadly, his observations fit painfully well the events of the last week of June.
First, legislator Wendy Davis filibustered a bill in the Texas legislature that would ban killing unborn children in the last twenty weeks of pregnancy and require abortion clinics to meet the medical standards required of other “ambulatory surgical centers.” Had these standards been observed, they might have saved lives at the charnel house of Philadelphia abortionist and convicted murderer Kermit Gosnell. For her efforts, Davis was lauded by the press as one of the Democratic Party’s “most popular politicians,” and a “hero.” The president of the United States joined the chorus of praise, tweeting “#StandWithWendy.”
Second, on June 26, the Supreme Court issued two same-sex marriage opinions. Following upon the Court’s holding in Hollingsworth v. Perry, same-sex couples are already obtaining marriage licenses in California, despite the votes of seven million Californians in favor of ballot initiative Proposition 8. The Court in United States v. Windsor struck down Section Three of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage for purposes of federal law as the union of one man and one woman. The majority opinion authored by Justice Kennedy held that federal legislators (Democrats and Republicans) and President Clinton passed DOMA strictly for the “purpose” of “impos[ing] a disadvantage … and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States.” According to the majority, lawmakers intended to “demean” and “injure” same-sex couples, and to “humiliate” any children they were raising.
The majority did not devote a single line to the lawmakers’ well-documented interests in assuring a special regard, nationally, for the wellbeing of children as a class, children for whom natural marriage is simply the only vehicle for tying their fathers to their mothers and to themselves, and indeed for preserving their entire historical and genealogical identity in this world. Not a line.
Instead, the Court declared that—in the opinion of five persons—marriage is rather about conferring a “dignity and status of immense import,” about granting a “far-reaching legal acknowledgment” of “intimate relationships,” and about “protect[ing]” “personhood and dignity.” As Justice Scalia’s dissent observed, the majority held that to disagree with their understanding of marriage is to be an “enemy of the human race.”
Third, on June 28, the Department of Health and Human Services issued the final iteration of a health insurance mandate concerning contraception, sterilization, and early abortifacients. What did it decide?
It decided to force insurers to provide “free” birth control and morning-after pills to the employees (and their family members, including minor daughters) of religious employers, regardless of whatever conscientious objection the employers might have. HHS wrote that its decision “respect[s] the concerns of non-profit religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage.”
They did this despite hundreds of thousands of opposing comments and dozens of (mostly successful) lawsuits against the government. They did it despite the fact that the “scientific report” undergirding the mandate has no empirical data proving the oft-repeated claim that free contraception will prevent women’s illnesses.
In sum, according to the powers-that-be, supporting killing unborn human beings is “heroic,” supporting natural familial bonds for children is “demeaning,” and forcing religious employers to insure (and really to pay for) services for their employees that they cannot in good conscience support is “respecting religious freedom.”
My head is spinning. So is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
And Americans are not alone in wondering at what moment reasoned discourse on life or marriage or religious freedom became impossible. Similar difficulties beset our neighbors in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Ireland is soon to vote on legalizing abortion. It would legalize abortion to save the life of the mother (current law requires saving the life of both mother and child). This proposed new law would allow abortion most notably in circumstances wherein it is believed the mother would commit suicide without recourse to abortion.
It is easy to see how, in practice, the legislation will open the floodgates to abortion, though the sponsors call the bill “restrictive” and “life-saving.” But there is even another problem: the best empirical data from Europe also indicate that abortion is likely a cause of female suicide, not a preventive measure.
In the UK, Parliament is considering a bill to grant “marriage” to same-sex couples. Besides ignoring child welfare, the bill undercuts two additional, intrinsic, and perennial features of marriage: it voids the requirement of consummation (lawmakers couldn’t agree how to define it for same-sex partners), and it undermines the norm of fidelity by abolishing the possibility of same-sex adultery.
In other words, if a person granted a same-sex “marriage” has a sexual encounter with another person of the same sex (but not a person of the opposite sex), it is not what people have always thought “cheating” must constitute in the context of a marital relationship, i.e. “adultery.” In short, the UK bill grants marriage rights, while simultaneously voiding longstanding and definitional essentials of marriage.
Defenders of human life, religious freedom, and children’s interests in marriage should excuse themselves these days for sputtering—for having literally no words to offer in response to recent events. It appears words are currently useless. All the words we would ordinarily reach for are taken, and have suddenly been redefined.
To add insult to injury, the movers and shakers redefining the ordinary and natural meanings of things—and thus redefining culture and society, not just law—are beyond our democratic influence. Our hundreds of thousands of comments to HHS about the contraception and early-abortifacient mandate command no legal deference. The mind of Justice Kennedy (who effectively controls the Court’s marriage decision-making given the otherwise 4/4 split) is not open to rational arguments from those who disagree with him. President Obama—who, in his days as a state legislator, already indicated how far removed he is from normal sensibilities regarding the value of human life by refusing to use his power to stop the killing of disabled, born alive human infants in Illinois—has proved himself deaf to all our calls, letters, comments, and lawsuits.
In fact, when the president’s opinions are challenged, he often responds with even more extreme versions of earlier positions. For example, after he refused to defend Section Three of DOMA on the grounds of unconstitutionality, and won in the Supreme Court, he suggested the very next day that same-sex marriage should be imposed on the fifty states by means of repealing Section Two of DOMA, which presently allows states to make their own decisions about the legal definition of marriage.
But of course we have to find our voice again, to insist upon the natural meanings of words, and upon the necessity of logic. In addition, in this age, we need to use images and stories. Once again we have to be willing to be publicly visible—so as to dispel the notion that we do not exist, or that we have given up the fight to ensure rational discourse, and pursue and disseminate relevant, truthful data.
We have to be publicly visible also because that’s the most effective way to dispel the negative, one-dimensional portrait of our ranks. We have to be willing to help organize the currently disenfranchised majority who do possess ordinary humanitarian sensibilities about the good of life over death, the good of natural marriage, and the good of living in integrity with our religious convictions.
Helen Alvaré is Professor of Law at George Mason University.