A life for life

A friend died recently. Thomas J. Marzen succumbed to cancer at the age of 60. He was a mentor and role model.

I first met Tom in 1981 when he was working as an attorney for Americans United for Life in Chicago. Founded by, among others, the late Dr. Joseph Stanton of Massachusetts, another great pro-lifer, AUL is the legal arm of the national pro-life movement. Tom later worked at the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent & Disabled, defending the rights of persons with disabilities in the areas of medical treatment denials and assisted suicide.

Tom was a gifted writer, strategist, and thinker. He was one of those persons who woke up each morning with a preoccupying question: how can the pro-life cause be advanced today? He insisted on the need to think ahead, anticipating the legal battles and predicting the course of likely conflicts far into the future.

When Tom entered the legal profession, the ink used in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe vs. Wade, legalizing abortion as a constitution right, was not yet dried. He and other attorneys in the ensuing years, such as Dennis Horan, Victor Rosenblum, Patrick Trueman, Rick Valentine, Burke Balch, Ed Grant and Maura Quinlan at AUL, and James Bopp at the National Right to Life Committee engineered a strategy to chip away at Roe’s reach and scope, aiming for reversal. The example set by Tom and his fellow pioneers continues to inspire succeeding generations of pro-life lawyers and advocates.

Besides drafting model statutes and guiding litigation on abortion, Tom helped to shape legal strategies against the infanticide of newborns, the “quality of life” denial of care from persons with disabilities, and the assisting in suicides of the terminally ill, sometimes years before the threats became realities.

His most notable effort was the co-authoring of a law review article surveying the legal history of assisted suicide. Published in 1985 and inspired by the faulty use of history by the Supreme Court in the abortion cases, the article demonstrated that our nation’s laws never countenanced a right to kill one’s self. Achieving its prescient purpose, the article was cited favorably by the U.S. Supreme Court when it ruled in 1997 that assisted suicide was not a constitutional right.

History blessed me with the opportunity to work closely with Tom on pro-life matters. First at AUL in 1982 (during a summer internship), and then at the National Legal Center from 1988 to 1996, we served together, providing me the opportunity to learn the intricacies of the law from the best. But the experience involved more than just the chance for professional collaboration.

Up close, I witnessed Tom’s insatiable curiosity. He was driven to learn. But his was not the disconnected existence of a secluded academic. He loved to converse, drawing from others whatever new information he could glean, adding to his encyclopedic store of knowledge. He kept asking interesting questions about so many different, and surprising, things. Once, he confessed to being ignorant about why bank buildings had so many floors, and wondered what went on in such places as to require so much space.

Tom’s core however was not his knowledge and inquisitiveness but his caring and his faith. Tom looked out for the needs of those around him. One example: when funding at the National Legal Center started to dry up, Tom reduced his own salary to enable the employees under him to stay on. He took real interest in how things were going for each employee and his or her family. Those of us who knew Tom all have stories about his empathy and concern.

To talk about Tom’s faith, one must know about Tom’s struggles. He suffered from alcoholism, which contributed to two marital breakups. After years of losing his battles with the addiction, he turned in utter desperation for help through Alcoholics Anonymous and by God’s providence found a sponsor who convinced him to take the 12 steps to recovery.

He went to the hospital to dry out and there doctors discovered he had kidney disease. After his kidneys started to fail, Tom underwent dialysis and eventually had a kidney transplant. At one point, as a consequence of the anti-rejection medications, he broke several bones in his feet. He had also been a smoker, forced finally to quit as a result of his medical troubles, and the smoking may have precipitated the lung cancer that eventually killed him.

These experiences provoked the most intense feelings of guilt and failure in Tom. This is where his faith enters the picture. Tom was tested severely by despair and he found the courage to seek forgiveness and the strength to be reborn through his Catholic faith. His oldest son Nate, in reflections shared at Tom’s funeral, revealed that “Pops” had inspired him to be confirmed in the Catholic Church, with Nate choosing St. John of the Cross as his confirmation name. He was introduced to this saint by Tom who, Nate said, had adopted St. John’s spirituality of suffering at the foot of the cross.

I’m convinced that Tom is a saint now in heaven, not a plastic one, but one who suffered deeply from his own and from nature’s failings, and thus one who knew the true value of God’s redeeming grace. He was our daughter’s godfather, a responsibility that he bore with utmost seriousness, and an office that will continue to privilege our daughter. The witness of his own three children to his loving parenting speaks as well to the gifts Tom provided even in the midst of his own difficulties. Before he died, I was told by his family, he had made peace with those in his life to whom he needed to be reconciled.

Thus, to the end, Tom’s life was a life for life. May God have mercy on him and grant him eternal rest.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference