Included below is the latest edition of my blog [March 6, 2019]. I made the subject line a little vague, because I didn’t want you to dismiss it out of hand, since it deals with a very current and very hot button issue. The “odyssey” details a thread of my life, from my days at San Francisco State College (now University) until the present.
The thread weaves its way through some interesting times – the student strikes at State in the late 1960s (of which I was a part), through my life as a quasi-hippie in Marin County, through my tenure in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at UCSF, ending with my consequential encounter with Saint Pope John Paul II on Geary Boulevard.
Before starting out on my journey however, I am going do something a little unusual and tell you how the story ends, which is with two quotes from past US Supreme Court rulings.
The first is by Chief Justice Roger Taney in the Dred Scott Decision, which essentially ruled that any ban on slavery was unconstitutional. The second is by Justice Blackmun in his opinion in Roe v. Wade (italics mine):
Justice Taney (Dred Scott): [African Americans] were “…beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, …and so far inferior that they had no rights that the white man was bound to respect”.
Justice Blackmun(Roe V. Wade): “…a woman has a right to terminate the life of the unborn. The unborn have no human status and therefore no legal status that the law has to respect”.
The stark similarities between those two statements define what you might call the trajectory of my odyssey, and basically why I wrote it.
And, as I say below, if you believe in a woman’s right to abortion, and also believe in human rights, I highly recommend you read my odyssey, especially if you do not want to end up on the wrong side of the historical fence yourself, like Justice Taney did.
A Note and a Plea: I would like you to understand that what I say below is not intended as a judgment on those who think differently than I do. I firmly believe in the old scriptural adage, “Judge not, lest ye be judged”, and I would certainly not want to be judged on my moral character when I first started out on this journey. I thus welcome and encourage your comments – but please be kind. And, as always, if you wish to be removed from my distribution list, I will certainly do so, without prejudice [to request inclusion in this list, please e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org].
May God Bless you all,
Ash Wednesday, 2019
Abortion and Human Rights – A Personal Journey
I was a firm believer in a woman’s right to an abortion even before I was accepted at San Francisco State College. As a social science major and a Student’s for a Democratic Society activist, to believe otherwise would have been unthinkable. I joined the student strikes shortly after arriving at SF State, in the late ’60s, and was one of those that roamed through the halls, banging on garbage can lids and chanting, “On Strike, Shut it Down”. It was my PA system that S.I. Hayakawa commandeered on top of the car, captured in that now famous photo of those turbulent times.
I even took a class in community organizing while at State, offered by the Experimental College, probably similar to something Barak Obama might have taken at Columbia. The text for the class was Saul Alinsky’s, “Rules for Radicals”. It was only after dropping out and retiring to a little hamlet in Marin County, that my values began to change.
The instructor in an Education class I was enrolled in gave me the key concept that led to my self-imposed exile. In an attempt to bring some balance to the debates swirling on campus regarding the war in Vietnam, racism and the “Military Industrial Complex”, he pointed out that it was useless to try and change society without changing people, and that you must start by changing yourself. Once you have become whole yourself, he offered, may you then become an effective instrument in the process of education. Put another way, and paraphrased a bit, “You should first remove the 2 x 4 from your own eye, then you will see clearly enough to remove the sliver from your neighbors eye.”
That notion struck a chord in me, and I decided that the methods of the SDS and Saul Alinsky were futile. I resolved to begin work on myself as the best method to break the “karmic cycle” of violence and war our world seemed locked in. I enrolled in another class at the Experimental college which seemed more in tune with this approach – a class in zazen, or “sitting meditation”.
After my first semester at State, personal circumstances forced me to quit school and move to Marin county. I was delighted to find that the kinder, gentler life of a hippie in a Forrest Knolls, quasi-commune was much better suited to my persona than the life of strife I experienced at SF State.
Not that hippies were anti-abortion as such, but they were very pro life, or, more accurately, pro Creation. Hippies honored all things, great and small, and took much delight in even the simplest of forms – an insect, a leaf, pebbles in the stream behind our house or a redwood tree. I believe that the use of hallucinogenics played a role in the development of such perspectives, as ordinary things could become extremely fascinating and take on vastly more importance under their influence.
If the great passion for hippies was the natural world, the great mission was the search for God and Truth. Some did delve into drugs, some nutrition, some Yoga of various forms and some even Christian mysticism, but meditation seemed to be the method of choice for those who wanted a more natural, drug-free approach to enlightenment.
It did not matter what road you traveled however, as long as you were on The Journey. It was no accident or passing fashion that “Lord of the Rings”(or simply “The Trilogy” as it was called then) was so popular in the movement. I pretty much passed on the drugs, but instead became involved in Transcendental Meditation and Hatha Yoga, and became very fascinated by the writings of the Christian mystics, such as St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, both Catholics I was later to learn.
I should clarify that my experience of hippiedom may be somewhat different than what you may remember or have read about. As in many things human, the members of that sub-culture seemed to be strung out (no pun intended) along a continuum, from those that were attracted by the freedom of lifestyle and the drug culture, to those who were attracted by the purity of the ethic and the discipline of self-mastery. Although it was the former group that attracted the most media attention, it was the latter that was most attractive to me.
I cannot remember even one conversation about abortion in those times, or remember anyone ever having one, but whenever the idea passed my mind, it seemed increasingly out of touch with my developing sensibilities. The thought of killing anything, no matter how inconvenient or threatening, became repugnant, and I began to realize how contradictory such actions were to the hippie creed and even to mainstream liberal ideals. How could people who protested against the war and who cared so much for the poor, the disenfranchised and the natural world, give their blessings to a process that killed innocent life?
Defining the moment of birth as the beginning of legal person-hood seemed to me like a totally arbitrary and very dangerous definition. It seemed clear that even though birth was an important developmental milestones in a person’s life, it had no particular attribute that qualified it to be the point that determined whether or not a woman could legally have her child killed. I reasoned that if our society could make such artificial definitions regarding human life, nothing would be beyond the grasp of the powerful. I was very saddened by the realization that our laws would allow the destruction of human life, and that our constitution had such a gaping hole in its otherwise protective umbrella. The final realization that I could not reconcile the contradictions inherent in the abortion question was the beginning of my conversion to another way of thinking.
This was also the beginning of my conversion to Catholicism. I attribute my conversion to Pope John Paul II, who I had developed a grudging admiration for over the years. So when he came to San Francisco in 1997, I made a point to get tickets for the Mass he was to celebrate at Candlestick park. However, before that, I had what I consider a personal encounter with him.
The day before the Mass, on the bus ride from my new job at UCSF to Marin, we were stopped at Geary Boulevard by a traffic cop. Curious, I walked up to the front of the bus, just in time to see the Pope in his Popemobile turning the corner right in front of us. The Pope looked up and waved at me. I waved back. As Pope Benedict said in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”. I believe that meeting with the Pope was a decisive encounter for me.
Although there were other things that attracted me to Pope John Paul II, it was not until I began reading his various encyclicals and other writings on human rights that he truly gained my respect.
Simply put, he convinced me that every human person has a sacred dignity that is absolute and inviolable, from conception until natural death. This “Theology of the Human Person” formulated by him, is the foundation of the Church’s teaching on all life issues (e.g., abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment), and also underpins the teachings on human sexuality and marriage. The broad reach of this vision however, also permeates the Church’s social doctrines and forms the basis for Catholic social action, which fit my “liberal” perspectives on the subject like a glove. This seamless theological garment formed the bridge over which I easily traveled from my hippie life to life in the Church.
This also led me to a very personal perspective on abortion. My first wife (to be) and I had made an attempt to get an abortion when we first found out she was pregnant. However, since abortion was illegal then, we didn’t get very far. Out of desperation we decided to get married and have the baby.
During the process of my conversion I reflected on the consequences if abortion had been legal. I would not have the son I now have and neither would I have my six grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. You might argue that I could have married someone else and had other sons and other grandchildren. That was a possibility of course, but I could never have had my particular son, Christopher, or my particular grandchildren, and it would have been a sorrowful thing indeed had these particular human beings never been born. My ex-wife and I are profoundly grateful we were never given that choice, and my son is quite thankful as well.
But once abortion became legal, I realized that many more people would not have the illegality of abortion to keep them from making a terrible mistake. The legality of abortion would now teach people that it was ok to have a doctor kill your unborn child. It was this realization that brought me firmly into the pro life movement, and motivated me to help others from making such a mistake.
I now had a theological and a very practical foundation for my hippie ideas, but what about the contrary ideas of society? As a Christian I am bound by my baptismal promises to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, either by word or deed, and living out the Gospel values as an honest, loving, forgiving and chaste person is the ordinary way a Christian does this.
But the fundamental question remained: how do you “teach” the sanctity of life, and against what Pope John Paul II calls the “Culture of Death”? Picketing abortion clinics, I thought, may serve to keep the debate alive, but that did not seem to me to be the answer, like the SDS was not the answer for me forty years ago.
Working in computer support for the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at UCSF, I came to know many people who supported and actively promoted abortion, and many of them were kind and sincere persons with a passion for those they felt were suffering. Although it may be inexplicable to me why the suffering unborn children experience during the process of abortion is not on their radar too, I cannot argue with their humanity and sincerity, up to a point.
My most sobering experience at UCSF occurred while working on the computer in the room of one of our female gynecologists. She was being interviewed by another woman from a similar clinic. I could hear all the questions put to her, which were pretty mundane, until she was asked “What do you do in cases where a baby survives an abortion?” At that point our doc’s voice went sotto voce. She spoke to the other women in hushed tones for some minutes, which I presume to mean she explained a procedure she wanted no one else in the room to know about. I will let you decide what she must have said, but I suspect she must have used some of the same reasoning used by those who defeated the recent abortion survivors bill in the US Senate.
The answer to my question finally came to me in the form of a history lesson on Constitutional law. I discovered a legal treatise, called “The Rights of the Unborn – The Constitutional Challenge to Roe v. Wade” (http://www.priestsforlife.org/government/therightsoftheunborn.htm), written by Father Clifford Stevens, a Catholic priest of the Omaha Archdiocese. After reading his paper I knew it was what I was looking for. Father Steven’s thesis is that the question of abortion would not be resolved by moral arguments; it would be resolved by legal arguments, and these arguments would not depend on the ideological composition of the Supreme Court, but on the eventual but certain triumph of inviolable constitutional principals. In other words, the issue would not be solved by theologians, philosophers or activists, but by lawyers – a somewhat unsettling thought I know.
Fr. Stevens points out that over the years our Supreme Court has been very fallible in the area of human rights, and that in the history of Court decisions, many have often ended up on the wrong side of the historical fence. That is to say, many important Supreme Court decisions on human rights have been later overturned, when, in the course of time and with proper and persistent litigation, the original decisions were proven to be constitutionally flawed. If you believe in a woman’s “right” to abortion, and also believe in human rights, this is important reading, especially if you do not want to end up on the wrong side of the historical fence yourself.
I quote below an excerpt from Fr. Stevens’ paper:
“In a Society without law, the strong destroy the weak, and the basic constitutional principle at work in the American judiciary is that there must be effective checks in the law to protect the weak and deter those who would use power unlawfully only for their own advantage…
The question of abortion is no different from issues that have divided the country in the past: slavery, segregation, child labor, the condition of workers. Those holding power, intent on their own private interests, commit violent acts under the cover of property rights, contractual rights, states’ rights or the right of personal autonomy.”
Father Stevens’ paper presents a grand panorama of legal drama dating as far back as the discovery of the Americas, where he believes the legal principals were first developed that formed the basis for our constitutional government. Here he presents the fascinating story of the efforts of a Dominican Priest named Bartolome de las Casas, to protect the indigenous peoples of the New World from the genocide and slavery being perpetrated on them by the “conquista”. This account is followed by a catalogue of legal rulings that had the effect of denying the human rights of African Americans, Native Americans, workers, and child laborers. He then contrasts these rulings with those of subsequent courts (or constitutional amendments) that succeeded in restoring such rights – “historic reversals” he calls them.
In sum, Father Stevens presents a compelling legal scenario for the eventual overturning of Roe v Wade. He feels that when the Supreme court begins to grapple with the specific details of abortion (as opposed to “access to abortion” which is what Roe v. Wade dealt with), and is confronted with the hard facts about what this procedure actually does to a child in utero, it will come to the same conclusions it did in Brown v. Board of Education – that “all men are created [not born] equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.
Fr. Stevens feels this will be the beginning development of what he calls “Embryonic Law”. He states, “The question of the unborn is not a matter of statutory or positive law, it is a matter of constitutional law. The basic principle of constitutional law upon which all constitutional questions have been resolved is the principle of exceptionless rights. In the past, it was a question of whether the rights and immunities guaranteed by the Constitution included Black Africans, Native Americans, workers, women, children, Black citizens. Now, the question is whether they include the unborn. What has been opened is a whole new development in law: the application of the constitutional doctrine of human rights to the unborn (emphasis mine).
You may argue that the Court will never recognize the human rights of the unborn, because abortion is too much a part of our society, but consider the profound effect that overturning laws allowing slavery, or segregation or child labor had in previous times. As Fr. Stevens points out, “Slavery was a far more explosive issue, far more entrenched in legal precedents and supported by positive laws of long standing. Segregation had been given the cover of constitutional precedent and …deeply ingrained in the habits of public and private life. Child labor was part of a widely accepted economic practice upon which families and employer depended for their livelihood”.
I will leave you with two more quotes from Fr. Steven’s paper. The first is by Chief Justice Roger Taney in the Dred Scott Decision. The second is by Justice Blackmun in his opinion in Roe v. Wade. As repugnant as these statements are, their similarities are instructive (italics mine):
Justice Taney: [African Americans] were “…beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, …and so far inferior that they had no rights that the white man was bound to respect”.
Justice Blackmun: “…a woman has a right to terminate the life of the unborn. The unborn have no human status and therefore no legal status that the law has to respect”.
Consider this for yourself a “pedagogical moment”. If you really are a true believer in the concept of human rights, then you must read Fr. Stevens paper, taking the chance that doing so could transform you into a champion of the unborn as well!
Note: If you would like to read the full version of what I call my “Spiritual Autobiography” from which much of the above was taken, go to my WordPress site. Among other things you will learn about my meetings with some of the rich and famous in Carmel and Big Sur, some other neat stories about my life as a hippie in Forrest Knolls, and my arrest at UCSF.