Saying yes to life when others say no

In a locality neighboring our new hometown in Maryland, there is an abortion facility that occupies what used to be a convenience store. Apparently the building was, in its prior use, a draw for families with children. Now on the door, providing an entrance to an entirely different business, there is a handwritten sign in both misspelled Spanish and in English. It reads "No ninos" and "No children please." The obviously unintended double entendre, meant to warn children away from loitering on the stoop as if the place were still a grocery, now conveys a deeper, more ominous meaning. No children please -- for the sake of convenience.

We live in a society where saying no to life, whether it is someone else's life or even our own, has assumed a prominent place in our cultural vocabulary. Undoubtedly stiff pressures and hardships make death seemingly more attractive as an apparent solution in a variety of situations. The mantra repeats itself in ever-changing, "fill-in-the-blank" forms: no inconvenient children please, no expensive-to-care-for disabled or dying persons please, no "vegetables" please. In some cases the law promotes such lethal resort, as in the case of legalized abortion; in other cases the law still holds the line in favor of life, as in the case of prohibited doctor prescribed death.

Now an effort is underway in Massachusetts to "just say no" through the administering of lethal drugs to life with pain, or to life with loss of previous levels of ability and function, or to life with no long term hope of survival. Signatures are being gathered to support a petition to put the question of legalizing doctor prescribed death for the terminally ill before the legislature, and if no further action is taken there, then to place the issue on the statewide ballot.

There is still a vibrant contingent in the commonwealth consisting of service providers, disability rights activists, elder advocates and pro-life stalwarts who are committed to finding compassionate, life-affirming responses to difficult circumstances and who will have to band together to oppose the new campaign. The task of persuading the legislature and public not to give in to the temptation to bend the law to make killing easier and more widespread will be monumental, to be sure. But encouraging precedents exist.

In Vermont, for example, a candidate for governor in the last election ran on a platform that included a promise to work for and to sign a bill to legalize doctor prescribed death in that state, and he won the office. Early headcounts predicted prevailing support in the Vermont legislature for the new governor's death wish. Then a broad-based coalition went to work to stop the move towards euthanasia dead in its tracks. The victory for those on the side of life, as with any political accomplishment, is always subject to reversal after the next and any succeeding election. Yet the experience in Vermont proves that prophets of doom and defeat are not always accurate.

In Maine in 1998, a referendum to legalize assisted suicide appeared early on to be headed towards a comfortable margin of voter affirmation. Then the brilliantly crafted educational campaign against it swung into high gear. To the shock of everyone, including the opponents, the voters in Maine rejected the petition in favor of maintaining current restrictions.

In Massachusetts itself, in the mid-nineties, and then again in the first years of this century, there were organized pushes in favor of legalizing lethal prescriptions and neither succeeded. The first push culminated in a mammoth hearing at the State House, where opponents of legalized killing outshone the advocates. The second push involved an international "right to die" conference hosted in Boston, geared to raising public sympathy on an even grander scale. Due however to an effectively coordinated counter-publicity campaign highlighting the extreme nature of the organizations putting on the conference, the expected gush of laudatory press coverage instead turned into a whimper and a fizzle.

Massachusetts, squarely in the middle of the "deep North," represents a particularly daunting mission field for those pro-life Johnny Appleseeds seeking to grow a new culture of life. Ease is not part of the outreach dynamic. That is the challenge to be faced, and it calls for yet more heroic action by Catholics and others who have been confronted so frequently over the last thirty years with epic battles over abortion, parental rights, redefining marriage, cloning, destructive embryonic stem cell research, gambling and cataclysmic impoverishment.

Whether in victory or in temporal defeat, the power of saying yes to life and to other besieged goods in today's any-thing-goes environment will always leave an unforgettable trace of courage and persistence. While "moral victories" are too hollow to long sustain those committed to the complete moral revitalization of society, and lasting advancements in truth and justice remain the minimum goal, there is no such thing as a wasted setback when the battle is joined for all the right reasons.

May God's blessings shower the efforts of those tasked by these trying circumstances to be witnesses for life, charged with saying yes when so many others are saying no.

Daniel Avila formerly served the Catholic Bishops in Massachusetts and now lives and works in the Washington, D.C., area.