Choose Life: Toward a Culture of Life in the New Millenium

by Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap.

Therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.

Danny's Story

Americans could sell sand in the desert. We're the world's best marketers. That's the genius, and also the weakness, of our talent as a people. We use words with great skill, but without thinking too deeply about their consequences. In fact, we often use them precisely to prevent ourselves from thinking too deeply. We now avidly market everything from tobacco to assisted suicide, using words like candy to entice approval, or like heavy artillery to drive critics back into their trenches. Words can sell anything. They can also justify anything.

The result, unfortunately, is that fewer and fewer of us have confidence in the honesty of our public debates. We're becoming a nation of skeptics. Twenty-five years after Roe v. Wade, this means that any reflection on the "culture of life" begins from a deficit: The language of idealism has been so strangely misused for so long that many citizens simply don't listen anymore to appeals to principle or conscience. About the only thing which remains irrefutable is experience.

So let me begin with the story of a colleague.

Bill stands alone on a cold pebble beach in the silence of a gathering twilight. A small boat approaches. A young man eases it through the water with an oar. Bill knows this man. It's his son Dan.

Dan is in his mid-20s. His round, bright eyes are alive with humor as he holds out a hand, the strong, muscled hand of an athlete, to help his old man into the boat. "Let's go, Pop," he says as they cast off toward an unseen shore.

Or anyway that's what probably happens, because Bill always wakes up before he gets into the boat. The dream first came the night he learned that Dan had Down syndrome. Dan's eyes will never be round, and he'll never be an athlete, at least not like his older brothers.

Bill knows that dreams like his are a sign of anxiety, which is why he hasn't had one in many months: With Dan 7 years old now, so much of who Dan is and what he needs and does has become routine. Bill and his wife still worry about Dan's future, but the panic and the sense of failure—it's curious, Bill says, how these feelings gradually pass.

What's striking about Dan, according to Bill, is not how different he is from others, but how similar. Yes, he fits all the usual Down syndrome cliches employed to smooth the hard edge of a birth defect: a sweet temper, a gentle smile. He is also trouble on wheels, like every other first-grader. Dan is a person. He merely wears his imperfections on the outside, where they remind us uncomfortably of our own.

And that is the "problem" with Dan, and all who have mental and physical disabilities. They are too obvious. They embarrass us. We flee the imperfect behind a smokescreen of new programs, reformed vocabulary and ersatz sympathy, while politely arranging their prevention, or their destruction, with Orwellian understatements like genetic counseling.

Bill doesn't have his dream anymore, but he thinks about it sometimes. "Dan healed; Dan perfected: What would that even mean?" That he longs for a child other than the one he has? Better three Dannys, five Dannys, a hundred Dannys, "than one Danny fixed according to my confused and unforgiving specs." You see, the thirst for perfection in our children, in our friends, in the strangers we encounter, is really a thirst for perfection within our wounded selves. The irony of God's design is that only our weakness, our imperfection, can drive the economy of love. It's what makes us human. We need each other.

In all Dan's limitations and in all his possibilities, Bill has learned that his son is a treasure and not a mistake: "God does not make mistakes."

Words and Their Consequences

I relate Danny's story because today we need to begin with the specific and concrete in order to arrive at the general principles which we once all instinctively shared. It's one thing to muffle the abortion issue, as an abstraction, with a heavy snowfall of "pro-choice" marketing rhetoric. It's quite another to try that with a real 7-year-old who talks back, however clumsily. Abortion kills people like Danny. In fact, Down syndrome children are becoming extinct because the defense of reproductive choice and the pursuit of human "perfection" have been elevated to modern dogma.

Some observers criticize the use of graphic fetal images to show the brutality of abortion techniques. It's true that sometimes the use of such images is inappropriate—for example, when small children might see them and be traumatized. But, undeniably, these pictures of broken bodies reconnect the hot air balloon of political debate to the gravity of the consequences, which involve flesh and blood. Pictures show what "pro-choice" rhetoric tries to hide. "Terminating a pregnancy" means killing a child prior to birth. "Partial-birth abortion" means stabbing and collapsing the skull of an infant who is partially born. Our society markets this as "choice." And, as a result, people are duped; society is soothed into indifference.

For a young man who hadn't planned on making a lifetime commitment, the choice of having his girlfriend abort is better than the choice of paying 18 years of child support. Parents of a pregnant teen may think they have only two choices: ending a pregnancy to maintain their daughter's reputation, schooling, and her chance for a good career and marriage, or helping her raise her child or arrange an adoption. They may not consider their grandchild's right to life. When it's just a matter of choice, social and economic concerns can easily trump any claim that a "potential" baby might have. And so we continue to kill, thinking it is somehow acceptable because we call it by another name.

Today's marketing of physician-assisted suicide is, perhaps, even more ominous because we have even less reason to be naive about it. Anyone who has read Michael Burleigh's profoundly troubling Death and Deliverance: Euthanasia in Germany, 1900-1945 (Cambridge, 1994), will see that too many of us have learned too little from the bitter experience of this century. While the Nazis perfected the process of murdering those who were "defective," weak and disabled, the German medical establishment's inclination toward euthanasia predated the Nazis and can be traced to the eugenics movement of the early part of this century. That same eugenics movement persists today, in this country, albeit with a laundered vocabulary and pedigree, and better public relations advisers.

Nor can we plead innocence due to ignorance. We've had too many warnings. Society may start, as Oregon has, by allowing physician-assisted suicide in limited circumstances. But it can only end as a social "necessity." As Paul Wilkes and others have noted, some Dutch doctors—today, right now—have already gone beyond helping patients die, to actively killing them without their consent, because the physicians considered them better off dead. In the Netherlands, safeguards against the abuse of physician-assisted suicide were trumpeted as stringent. But the safeguards don't work, because the logic of physician-assisted suicide is to naturally, relentlessly expand.

Remember history. As Burleigh records, the Nazi euthanasia campaign began on the merciful-sounding pretext of relieving people of unbearable pain. It ended with killing the mentally and physically disabled, the infirm, the insane, the anti-social, the merely troublesome, and, of course, 6 million Jews. It is perhaps most disturbing of all that those who carried out the killing were often normal citizens who, in many cases, found the habit of "therapeutic killing" remarkably easy to acquire.

The Hidden Costs

The human costs of abortion are catastrophically high for us all because abortion connects and intertwines with other behaviors which determine our cultural character. Let me explain. Here in Colorado we take great pride in the beauty of our natural environment. Each fall, thousands of us make a trek into the Rocky Mountains to watch the aspen trees turn a spectacular gold. But the color of autumn isn't the only unusual quality to the aspens. These trees are unique because each individual tree is woven together, under the soil, into a single, vast root system. As a result, the ill health infecting some of our aspen forests is really a symptom of deeper problems for the whole statewide aspen population. In a sense, there are no single aspen trees. They're part of one, much larger, aspen root system.

In like manner, some may think abortion is an isolated issue—one abortion affecting only one woman, killing only one child. But a single abortion involves a father, a doctor, nurses, a receptionist, "counselors," a billing clerk, insurance people, family, friends and sometimes colleagues. Abortion does not take place in a vacuum. Its ripples are far-reaching.

The deaths by abortion of more than 37 million children have had a corrosive effect on our attitude toward life itself. Instead of families, neighbors and communities helping women welcome and care for their children, millions of pregnant women are left to the mercy of a multi-million dollar industry which—quite crudely and literally—makes its profits from killing unborn children. And after an abortion, a woman is left to bear alone the grief of her baby's death. A woman may suffer from guilt and even self-hatred for not having protected her child. She may also have no one to turn to for comfort, often because she concealed her pregnancy from family and friends, or because they encouraged her to have the abortion.

In deeply personal ways, abortion has touched the lives of millions. No one in our society has escaped unscathed; everyone is affected by the hardening of the heart which comes when a culture tolerates killing. Abortion denies that human life is sacred. It undermines the very concept of human rights.

Human rights can, of course, be violated in many ways: for example, when we tolerate euthanasia, treat others unjustly, or neglect those who are alone, in need or in despair. But efforts to protect and advance human rights cannot succeed if we do not first recognize that the right not to be killed is the base upon which all other rights rest. As Pope John Paul expressed it: "It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop."1

To refrain from killing other human beings does not exhaust our obligation toward others. It is the starting point of human rights, the necessary first step in building a culture of life. To not intentionally kill innocent human beings is "the absolute limit beneath which free individuals cannot lower themselves."2

Toward a Culture of Life

Conversion, whether personal or cultural, begins by recognizing that a problem exists. Today, many, including those in government and in institutions that help to shape our cultural beliefs and behavior, do not recognize that abortion is a problem, or that euthanasia is the wrong direction to take. They deny it. Over the past quarter of a century, the toleration of abortion, socially and legally, has clouded individual consciences and made it more difficult for many to distinguish between good and evil, "even when the fundamental right to life is at stake."3 So people in our society need to be reminded that "voluntary killing of innocent human beings is always gravely immoral,"4 and that violating this teaching through abortion and euthanasia has far-reaching consequences.

But how does one help others to understand this? To penetrate the rhetoric of choice and highlight our human capacity for violence and self-delusion are not enough. To transform our culture into one which respects and defends human life, it is necessary to speak of a deeper and a greater truth: All human life is sacred. God is its author. We do not own it.

This is why we are called to be a people of life, people who respect and actively promote life. Each of us has gifts to bring to this challenge. Each of us has a responsibility to help bring about a culture of life. No one is exempt. Our particular responsibilities flow from our state in life and from our personal gifts and talents. Bishops, for example, are called to teach and to encourage their brother priests and seminarians to hand on the Gospel of Life in its entirety. Catechists, teachers and theologians are asked to teach persuasively on behalf of unborn children and their mothers because this is where today's struggle is most costly in human lives. Parents face the challenge of raising their children to welcome new life as a gift from God, to respect those who are advanced in years, and to comfort the sick and the lonely. Political leaders have a responsibility to make courageous choices in support of life, especially through legislative measures that protect those who are mortally threatened—children not yet born and those who are very old or very sick, and those who, like Danny, wear their imperfections on the outside.

All of us have a responsibility to participate in the social and political life of our nation to ensure that laws do not violate the right to life, and that they protect and promote life itself and the common good.

We can ignore the truth about human life, and our obligation to protect, nurture and sustain it, but not without cost. Not because an angry God will hurt us for rejecting his teaching, but because we will hurt ourselves by becoming alienated from God's light and love. The culture in which we live is an ecology. If we pump waste into the air we breathe or the water we drink, we become ill. We poison the root system that sustains us all. If we reject the value and dignity of human life, we build our culture on a lie, and its structures cannot endure.

We can build a culture of life in the Third Millennium. But it will not simply happen. We have to live out the commitment to do so. To transform society, we are called to live and celebrate the Gospel of Life in our daily lives, lives marked by self-giving love for others. "Thus," says Pope John Paul II, "may the 'people of life' constantly grow in number and may a new culture of love and solidarity develop for the true good of the whole human society."5

Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Denver, serves on the NCCB Committee for Pro-Life Activities.


  1. The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae — "EV"), 101.
  2. EV, 75.
  3. EV, 58.
  4. EV, 57.
  5. EV, 101.