One of the most iconic images from Notre Dame’s storied history is a July 1964 photograph of Father President Theodore Hesburgh standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Rev. Martin Luther King at Chicago’s Soldier Field, singing “We Shall Overcome.” The photograph perfectly captures what Notre Dame aspires to be—not merely a world-class community of learning and research, but also, as its founder Father Sorin wrote, “a great force for good in the world” animated by the truths affirmed by the Catholic Church regarding the inalienable and equal dignity of every member of the human family. The image is so powerful because it shows that on that summer day in 1964 it was not merely Father Hesburgh (formidable though he was and continues to be) but the University of Notre Dame—the most important Catholic university in the world—standing in solidarity with our oppressed and marginalized brothers and sisters in their struggle for civil rights.
Last week—a little more than a half a century later—the University of Notre Dame once again joined its voice with those proclaiming the truth that every human being has a claim on us as fellow brother or sister, and is entitled to the essential protections of the law. On Thursday, January 22, seven hundred Notre Dame students, scores of faculty and staff, the university’s president, officers, and alumni traveled to Washington, DC, for the annual March for Life, an event that not only offers a large-scale witness to the tragedy of abortion and the grave injustice of Roe v. Wade, but also marks a joyful celebration of the great good of every human life from conception to natural death.
So, why was Notre Dame there, and why does it matter?
First, why would the world’s premier Catholic university offer its institutional witness at the March for Life? The short and most obvious answer is that the University of Notre Dame is pro-life as an institutional matter. This is manifest in several ways. In 2010, it reaffirmed its longstanding position with an official statement declaring: “Consistent with the teaching of the Catholic Church on such issues as abortion, research involving human embryos, euthanasia, the death penalty, and other related life issues, the University of Notre Dame recognizes and upholds the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.” Notre Dame has formal policies relating to biomedical research that are anchored in its commitment to the inviolability of the human being at the embryonic and fetal stages of development. Notre Dame’s Right to Life club is the largest and most active student organization on campus. Notre Dame is the home of a wide array of pro-life programming, research, and social initiatives (the primary engine of which is the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, where I have the privilege to serve as director). To take only a few examples, there is the Notre Dame Vita Institute (a week-long intensive interdisciplinary course in embryology, philosophy, law, public policy, and social science for the leaders of the pro-life movement worldwide); the Evangelium Vitae Medal (the most important lifetime achievement award for heroes of the pro-life movement); Project Mom (a student initiative to provide support for pregnant women in need), and the Institute for Church Life’s Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives (hosting speakers, symposia, courses, and retreats). Finally, Notre Dame is currently before the United States Supreme Court in an effort to reverse the federal government’s mandate requiring the university (on pain of crushing fines) to facilitate access to drugs that may, according to FDA labeling, cause the death of a newly conceived human being prior to implantation in her mother’s womb.
At this point, some critics might suggest that it is intellectually corrupt for an elite institution of higher learning to lend its prestige and moral capital to a social cause championed in the name of religion (especially by the Catholic Church). Never mind the fact that this criticism is never made in response to any elite university’s stands (including Notre Dame’s) on behalf of the poor, the immigrant, the death-row inmate, or responsible stewardship of the environment, even though these causes are promoted by religious institutions, sometimes in explicitly religious terms. More deeply, the underlying criticism fails to take on board the fundamental claim of the pro-life movement. The central argument is that every life matters, no matter how young, small, dependent, diminished, unwanted, or even despised by others. This claim is not rooted in revealed religious teaching, but rather in principles of basic embryology (which confirm that the unborn child threatened by abortion is indisputably a living member of the human species) and foundational principles of justice and equality (which hold that every member of the human family, without discrimination, is entitled to moral concern and the basic protections of the law).
Notre Dame (along with the Catholic Church of which it is a part) embraces the pro-life position on abortion formally and publicly because it is a necessary entailment of its commitment to the intrinsic and equal worth of every human person. Far from being a sign of intellectual weakness or blind obedience to revealed dogma, Notre Dame’s pro-life commitment reflects the only intellectually coherent (non-self-destroying) conception of human equality—wherein the weak and the strong stand in equal relation to one another both in our hearts and before the law. The alternative point of view (undergirding the abortion-rights movement) is that some members of the human family—the weakest among us—can be denied recognition as persons under the law when it serves the interests of the strong. Nothing could be more anathema to the principle of equal justice under law.
So, Notre Dame is pro-life. But why should it participate in the annual March for Life in Washington, DC? First, the March for Life is the largest annual civil rights event in the world—this year, reasonable estimates suggest that participation may have surpassed 650,000. As Father Hesburgh showed during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, given its standing in the world and its role as a cultural symbol, Notre Dame has an obligation to be present at this public gathering.
Second, the March itself captures the pro-life movement in all its richness. The March is dominated by youth—90 percent of participants are under the age of thirty. Like the pro-life movement, the March is dominated by women—most of the participants are females, young and old. Despite the fact that the March memorializes the unspeakable loss of life since 1973 (57.5 million unborn children killed) and a judicial decision that declared the unborn constitutionally sub-personal, the event is one of love and joy. Love for all—not just unborn children, but for their mothers, for men and women wounded by abortion, and even for those who promote, perform, and profit from abortion itself. The March embodies the pro-life movement’s commitment to radical inclusion and solidarity. It serves as a potent corrective to the modern (and false) impulse to understand ourselves merely as individual, lonely atomized wills with no obligations except those that we voluntarily choose, and whose highest aim is to pursue projects of our own invention, without regard to the claims of others. In form and in substance, the March seeks to enhance the moral imagination so that we can all see more clearly our brothers and sisters both inside and outside of the womb. And finally, while the March is and aspires to be a culturally transformative event, it also seeks to transform the law (as enacted, enforced, and interpreted) to become more inclusive, just, welcoming, and protective.
In short, the March for Life is the most extraordinary, nonpartisan, joyful, and loving public witness to the dignity of all life and our reciprocal obligations of care and protection to one another by virtue of our common membership in the human family. These are goods at the core of Notre Dame’s mission to educate the minds and hearts not only of our students, but of the world in which we live. Accordingly, as long as there is a March for Life, Notre Dame will be there.
O. Carter Snead is the William P. and Hazel B. White Director of the Center for Ethics and Culture, and Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame.