Killing defenseless
leads to killing all

Pro-life warnings realized
as country wrestles with life issues

Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., delivered the following address to 150 pro-life leaders who gathered in Denver July 25-27 for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual pro-life directors conference. The address has been adapted for publication. Part I follows. Part II will run next week. For the unedited, complete address, click here.

Some years ago a brother bishop wrote that "if it is once accepted that people have the right to kill `unproductive' fellow human beings — and even if it only initially affects the poor defenseless mentally ill — then as a matter of principle murder is permitted for all unproductive people; in other words, for the incurably sick, people who have become invalids through work or war, and for all of us when we become old, frail and therefore unproductive . . . None of our lives will be safe . . . [And] who will be able to trust his physician anymore?"


Two decades ago, that kind of anxiety might have sounded alarmist. But we now live in a world where 8 percent of the infants who die each year in the friendly, civilized, democratic Netherlands are killed by their own doctors. This is the same Netherlands where doctors have cooperated in the suicides of people with early-stage HIV, anorexia and depression; the same Netherlands where an unsettling number of doctors admit to killing patients without even bothering to get their permission.

Most pro-lifers already know the challenges to the sanctity of human life that now exist in nearly every developed country. Many have been warning about the drift toward infanticide and euthanasia since the United States legalized abortion 30 years ago. But what's always struck me as strange is the size of the gulf between how right the warnings of the pro-life movement have been, and how stubborn so many people have seemed in ignoring those warnings. It's as if pro-lifers were the Cassandras of American politics — doomed to be correct and doomed to be ignored at the same time.

Now I think pro-lifers can and do have a significant influence on American political life. But it seems pretty reasonable to ask why so many otherwise good people in our country simply don't see any connection between the advent of Roe v. Wade and today's arguments over human cloning, or eugenics, or breeding embryos purely for science.

So I want to suggest four problems embedded in American culture today that make it almost impossible for some people to understand what pro-lifers are talking about.

Here's the first problem: our inability to reason. Most of the arguments in favor of embryonic stem cell research come down to two main points: (a) Stem cells are really, really small, therefore they can't be human; and (b) the end justifies the means.

Reasoning requires time. It requires a vocabulary of ideas. It involves the testing and comparison of competing arguments. But America in our lifetimes is a culture built on marketing, and marketing works in exactly the opposite way. Marketing appeals to desire and emotion, and it depends on the suppression of critical thought, which gets in the way of buying the product or the message. That's why marketing is tied so tightly to image — images operate quickly and very effectively at the sub-rational level. That's why we've seen so many alien-looking close-ups of stem cells in magazine and newspaper spreads. The implicit message of the image is: This can't be human; it doesn't even look like us. The fact that these cells are unique and contain all the genetic information a person will ever need, and that left alone they will inevitably progress to a fetus, to an infant and finally to a human adult, is often just bypassed.

The other argument for embryonic stem-cell research — the end justifies the means — is basically an exercise in cost-benefit analysis. And it goes like this: We need to sacrifice the few for the sake of the many, because the many outweigh the few. But again, the power of that argument is not rational but emotional, and it usually translates, in the media, into stories that pit this or that suffering Parkinson's Disease patient against an inarticulate petri dish. Of course, we should never dismiss the suffering of individual patients or their hunger for a cure. But my point is that the structure of such a comparison is inherently flawed; it's designed to appeal to something other than our reason. We gravitate to the Parkinson's Disease patient naturally and emotionally . . . and meanwhile, a very dangerous argument from utility sneaks past us masquerading as compassion.

Here's the second problem: our inability to remember. The historian Christopher Lasch once observed that Americans have an addiction to the new, the fresh and the practical. We're a people of the "now" — the present moment. We like to think that we invent ourselves, and that anything is possible. It's part of the American ethos. But the cost of that illusion is that Americans tend to have a very poor grasp of history, and thus we often learn too little from the lessons of the past.

To mention just one example: Quite a few Americans have some general knowledge of Hitler's campaign against the Jews. But I suspect very few understand that the ethical framework for the Holocaust was already in place in the German medical establishment before the Nazis ever came to power. Before turning its attention to the Jews, the Third Reich had already systematically killed tens of thousands of people — the official word was "disinfected" — people who were insane, mentally handicapped or terminally ill . . . and it did so using some of the same utilitarian excuses we now hear in the Netherlands.