Pope Francis summoned doctors and nurses to give "competent accompaniment" that affirms the "sacred value of human life" and takes responsibility for those little patients and their family members.
May 31 is the Feast of the Visitation of the Lord in which, among other things, we ponder the in uterointeraction between Jesus and John the Baptist. Mary, a few days pregnant with her Creator, visits her elderly cousin Elizabeth, six-months pregnant with of the forerunner of the One through whom all things were made. John, before his vocal chords had developed to be the voice crying in the wilderness, testified to Jesus by making his mom's womb a peritoneal trampoline, leaping with joy. Jesus, before his human fingers and hand had even formed, nevertheless blessed his cousin, sanctifying him for his mission of preparing Jesus' way.
It's an extraordinary mystery, one that is particularly significant for those in pro-life work. The Sisters of Life, for whom I am privileged to celebrate Mass six days a week, name all of their outreach centers helping pregnant women choose life -- in New York, Toronto, and Philadelphia --"Visitation" Missions. They seek to live, and show the Church how to live, both sides of this Visitation mystery.
Jesus taught clearly that everyone who received a child in his name, receives him, and that whatever we do to the least he takes personally (Mt 18:5; 25:40), and so the first side of the mystery is to help women come to embrace the fruit of their womb as a blessing, as Mary received Jesus in the world's most famous (humanly) unplanned pregnancy. The other side of the mystery is that they, like Mary, go out to care for modern Elizabeths, pregnant women in need, helping them in so many practical ways during pregnancy and beyond so that the women may eventually feel their children kicking and leaping within -- and one day jumping into their arms with joy.
Like the Annunciation, the Visitation is a feast on which we can and should ponder the deeper meaning of human life in the womb. It's also an opportunity for us to see in greater relief what happens when that prenascent life encounters violence rather than love.
Last Saturday, Pope Francis gave us another extraordinary discourse on abortion when greeting participants in a Vatican Conference dedicated to the theme, "Yes to Life! Care for the Precious Gift of Life in Fragile Situations." Bringing together 400 experts from 70 countries, it was sponsored by the Vatican's Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, the Knights of Columbus and the Italian foundation Heart in a Drop, which was formed in 2015 to promote scientific research and the growth of a culture that protects the life of mother and child before conception, during pregnancy and after birth.
Pope Francis spoke plainly about the "throwaway culture" that considers children diagnosed with various malformations and pathologies "incompatible with life," and that often leaves them, in places with ready access to abortion, "condemned to death." Francis emphasized, however, that "no human being can ever be incompatible with life, not due to his age, his health conditions, or the quality of his existence. Every child that enters a woman's womb is a gift, which changes the history of a family, of a father and a mother, of grandparents and siblings. And this baby is in need of being received, loved and taken care of."
He stated that every time a woman discovers that she is pregnant, she becomes aware of a mystery within, of a "presence, growing within her, pervading her whole being, making her not only a woman but a mother." He marveled at the "intense, crisscrossing dialogue" established between mother and child from conception that fosters a "mutual adaptation, as the little one grows and develops." That cross-talk, however, can change, he said, when the child is diagnosed with a serious condition that endangers his or her life, robbing the mother and father of serenity and feeling powerless.
At the same time, he stressed that children in the womb with such conditions are "little patients who not rarely can be cured with pharmacologic, surgical and extraordinary care interventions" and, when they cannot, can be placed in perinatal hospices that "provide essential support to families that accept the birth of a sick child." Pope Francis summoned doctors and nurses to give "competent accompaniment" that affirms the "sacred value of human life" and takes responsibility for those little patients and their family members.
In the very trying situation of children who are destined to die immediately or soon after birth, whose care "might seem a useless commitment of resources and further suffering for the parents," Pope Francis said it is rather an opportunity to bring familial love to fulfillment. "To take care of these children helps parents, in fact, to work through their mourning and think of it not only as a loss but as a stage on a path followed together. That child will remain in their life forever. And they will have been able to love him. Often those few hours in which a mother can cradle her child leave a trace in the woman's heart, which she never forgets."
This approach is in stark contrast, he said, to the culture of waste that justifies abortion for such children in fragile circumstances under the euphemism of "prevention." It's really, he stated, part of an "inhuman eugenic mentality" toward children with disabilities. Opposition to abortion, in these circumstances and in every situation, he underlined, is not principally a thing of faith, but "pre-religious" and simply "human." He said two questions that clarify the issues at state are: "Is it licit to eliminate a human life to solve a problem?" and "Is it licit to hire a hitman to solve a problem." He answered by saying that it's never permitted to"do away with a human life or hire a hitman to resolve a problem."Everyone sees these truths clearly with regard to those who have been born.He wants us to see it just as clearly with regard to those who will grow into kids and adults if they are not assassinated.
He then gave a powerful example from his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires of how "abortion is never the answer that women and families seek."
"There was a 15-year old girl with Down Syndrome who became pregnant, and her parents went to the judge to ask permission for her to abort. The judge, an upright and serious man, studied the matter and said: 'I want to question the girl.' 'But she has Down Syndrome, she doesn't understand,' [the parents replied]. "No, no, have her come,'" the judge responded.
"The 15-year old girl went, sat down, and began to talk with the judge and he said to her: 'Do you know what is happening to you?' 'Yes, I'm sick. ... They told me that I have an animal inside that is eating my stomach so I must have surgery,'" the girl said.
"No, you don't have a parasite that is eating your stomach,' [the judge retorted]. 'Do you know what you have there? A child!' And the Down's girl said: 'Oh, how beautiful!' ... With this, the judge didn't authorize the abortion. The [girl's] mother wanted it."
The Pope went on to give the rest of the story. "A girl was born. The years passed. She studied, grew up and became a lawyer. From the moment this girl became aware of her history, she use called the judge on her birthday to thank him for the gift of her birth. ... The judge died and now [the daughter of the girl with Down Syndrome] has become a prosecutor."
"Abortion," the Pope reiterated based on the story, "is never the answer that women and families seek," and he thanked those families, those moms and dads, who have "accepted fragile life" and who support others in such situations, saying their "witness of love is a gift for the world."
In contrast to the throwaway, eugenic inhumanity that undergirds the abortion of handicapped children and others, this warm, welcoming culture of parents and medical professionals to kids in fragile situations manifests a culture of love. It's the only adequate answer to another human being, however young, however disabled. It's the culture that Christians find in the mystery of the Visitation.
- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.