Of Many Things

For as long as I can remember, a nearly two-foot-tall statue of the Sacred Heart has stood atop my mother’s bedroom dresser. I occasionally wondered whether there was a story to go with it, but never asked. It seemed odd to this child that people would place such a statue in their home. A rectory or convent foyer, yes, but one’s bedroom? Eventually, I learned. About 64 years ago my mother suffered a miscarriage at home. Her firstborn, my older brother, was about one at the time. My parents notified the pastor, who on a subsequent visit gave my mother the Sacred Heart statue (the namesake of our parish). It remains in her now empty bedroom, somewhat worn from many years of tactile intercessory prayer and a vivid reminder of the precious nascent older sibling I won’t meet until the next life.

Six decades later, we witness a markedly changed worldview. The Catholic Church rightly decries the culture of death characteristic of contemporary society. My mother grieved over a tiny fetus, the pastor blessed it and my father accorded the lost life interment at the family cemetery plot.

Others, for reasons known only to God, are not so blessed. That many childless couples are willing to adopt a baby, while some young pregnant women want out of their situation, despite available options, makes the choice of abortion all the more aberrant.

A couple of years ago, in this space, I mentioned the group Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, centered in the Diocese of Brooklyn, and their monthly Rosary vigils attended by Bishops Nicholas DiMarzio and Thomas Daily. One of the dedicated sidewalk counselors, a woman from my parish, recently experienced what she calls a victory. She dissuaded a young woman and her boyfriend who were entering the abortuary from following through. A small victory in a big battle, for sure, but one that will some day mean life to a little boy or girl.

Often taking center stage in the battle, many of us don’t realize, are abortion survivors themselves. One of them is Gianna Jessen of Nashville, Tenn. On April 22, 1996, she testified before the Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. She told of her frightened 17-year-old mother who, when 7 l/2 months pregnant, decided to have a saline abortion. It was April 6, 1977. I am the person she aborted. I lived instead of died.

The gruesome details of Jessen’s story - her life struggles and continuing physical limitations - as well as those of countless others like her, are available on various anti-abortion Web sites. That Ms. Jessen survived against the odds baffled attending doctors and nurses. She endured years of therapy, however, for cerebral palsy. Now a singer and musician, she is also a sought-after motivational speaker and has addressed high schools and other groups across the country. Consistently, she credits her gift of life to the power of Christ. During a trip to the United Kingdom last year to speak before the House of Lords, she told The Sunday Telegraph newspaper: "It’s more comfortable for people to think of abortion as a political decision, or a right. But I am not a right.... I am the reality. My job is not to change your mind...[but] to present the truth and leave you to decide."

It can only be hoped that Ms. Jessen, and other survivors like her, can exert a positive, transforming influence on young women today. The best thing I can show you to defend life, she emphatically states, is my life. Equally emphatic is her forgiveness of her biological mother. Gianna came to recognize that the youthful mother thought the decision was about her alone, which suggests she was not sufficiently informed of life-saving alternative options.

Abortion is one of the most fractious moral and political issues of our time. We shall eagerly follow the Roberts Supreme Court as they take up the partial-birth abortion ban, just as we watch the new legislation in South Dakota, which bans virtually every abortion. Pope John Paul II spoke and wrote extensively about the sanctity and dignity of human life. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), he deplored the modern view of abortion, pointing out that its gravity has become progressively obscured. And he exhorts us, now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises.

Gianna Jessen knows what that means.

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This article appeared as “Luther and Catholic Historians,” on Oct. 21, 1967. 
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