28 May 2018

America Magazine

Two stories separated by 5,000 miles this weekend reminded us all of how crucial it is for citizens of democracies to avoid complacency in the defence of human rights, particularly the rights of those in greatest peril. They also are a reminder that every generation faces challenges to the dignity of life—and those threats are often tragically familiar.

The first was the unexpected landslide vote on 25 May that repealed the Republic of Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, which guaranteed the right to life of unborn children. By a margin of 2-to-1, the only society left in Europe that prohibited abortion on demand voted to allow it on almost exactly the same terms as everyone else. As the votes were being counted in Ireland, journalist Chris Hayes was reporting on a case from Brownsville, Texas, in which border patrol officers took an 18-month-old baby from his mother at the border in February because she was seeking asylum from violence in her home country; she says in a lawsuit that she has not seen her child for more than a month. The inhumanity of the episode was reinforced by news reports that of the 7,000 undocumented children the federal government has taken into custody, the Office of Refugee Resettlement does not know where 1,475 of them are.

In the case of Ireland, most prognosticators saw the liberalisation of abortion laws as a likely outcome, given that nation’s legalisation of divorce in 1995 and same-sex marriage in 2015, both by similar referendum processes and against the vociferous opposition of the Catholic church. But the sheer enormity of the vote for repeal—both in terms of turnout and the winning margin—has taken everyone by surprise. On abortion, Ireland seemed to have succeeded where every other modern democracy has failed. Their European neighbors have long allowed abortion early in a pregnancy but also have strong maternal safety nets; across the Atlantic, the United States has some of the most permissive abortion laws in the world (far more so than those aforementioned European nations) and almost no safety net for young mothers at all. But Ireland went its own way (it is worth noting that the Eighth Amendment is not some holdover from colonial rule: it was passed in 1983). Ireland created a modern state that both prohibited abortion in almost all circumstances and aimed to provide the best care for women before and after childbirth. No more.

Within our own borders, the draconian immigration policies and open race-baiting of the nominally pro-life Trump administration perhaps made public episodes of inhumanity inevitable. But an America where babies are torn from their mothers’ arms because their parents had the temerity to flee violence, where children are separated from their families and then lost through a blasé indifference, is not a pro-life nation at all. The rhetoric of Emma Lazarus, where the ‘Mother of Exiles’ welcomes ‘the wretched refuse of your teeming shores,’ seems less pertinent than that of theologian William Stringfellow: Is our nation now ‘a demonic principality’ that ‘exacts human sacrifices, captures and captivates presidents as well as intimidating and dehumanising ordinary citizens’?

The juxtaposition of these policies against the Trump administration’s efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, a necessary and laudable pro-life goal, reveals a cruel irony: Under this regime, the dignity of human life is subordinated to political ends even when, by happenstance of political alliance, it is being defended.

It is our biblical heritage that provides another warning—and mandate—in both cases. No doubt the Israelites of Exodus thought Pharaoh’s new law, that their offspring should be marked for death, a singular evil upon the earth. Yet in the time of Christ, another generation was vexed by the same nightmare in the person of Herod, in an edict whose eerie echo we remember in our own liturgical readings to this day. And now, 20 centuries later, that evil slouches forth again. To defend our prosperity, to defend ways of life we reflexively consider blessed, we seem to ignore the true and good impulses of our nature and instead turn again on our children.

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