Paul Greenberg became pro-life because we are all “endowed with certain unalienable rights”

On January 20, 2013 I heard Paul Greenberg talk about the words of Thomas Jefferson that we are all “endowed with certain unalienable rights” and the most important one is the right to life. He mentioned this also in this speech below from 2011:

Paul Greenberg Dinner Speech 2011 E-mail
Fall 2011 Issue
Some of you I have read after for years, others I have depended on for years—without ever having met you before this night. Every time a copy of the Human Life Review arrives in its plain brown wrapper, like a division of fresh reinforcements arriving at the front, I am grateful again for Maria McFadden Maffucci and her selfless corps of volunteers; her editors like Anne Conlon, her helpers, her subscribers, Grazi, signora!THANK YOU, all of you, at the Review. Praise the Lord and keep passin’ the ammunition.And Charmaine Yoest—and her people at Americans United for Life—those folks know their material, and keep up with every latest development. No wonder AUL has been described as the most influential group on Capitol Hill. Their numbers may be few, but I know their impact is huge, and not just on Capitol Hill. They’ve demonstrated that, occasionally, even Washington will listen to the voice of reason. Thank you, Charmaine Yoest.

And what a pleasure to finally meet Jack Fowler, through whom I got the rare privilege of actually corresponding with the legendary—if more than a bit reclusive—Florence King about doing a collection of her book reviews, most of which were far superior to the books she was reviewing. She’s a lady who tends to keep her own counsel, which is understandable. Hers is so much better than most people’s.

Each of us followed his own path to meet here tonight. Some came to the cause early; they were present at the creation of the Human Life Review in 1975. Others, like me, the slow learners, arrived late.

When Roe v. Wade was first pronounced from on high, I welcomed it. As a young editorial writer in Pine Bluff, Ark., I believed the court’s assurances that its ruling was not blanket permission for abortion, but a carefully crafted, limited decision applicable only in rare cases. Even Mr. Justice Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion, told us that Roe did not grant blanket license for the killing of the innocents. He seems to have managed to fool even himself. He certainly fooled me. I swallowed the line whole, and regurgitated it regularly in learned editorials. For years. Though it took more and more effort to rationalize it as the years passed. It can be a strain, sophistry. But editorial writers can acquire a certain affinity for it.

The right to life need not be fully respected from conception, I earnestly explained. It grows with each stage of fetal development until a full human being is formed. (As if any of us even now are still not developing as human beings.) I went into all this in an extended debate in the columns of the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial with a fiery young Baptist minister in town named Mike Huckabee. I kept trying to tell the Reverend Huckabee that life is one thing, personhood quite another. He wouldn’t buy it. Though it’s an engaging argument. For a fatal while. As if those of us who would confer personhood on others couldn’t just as easily revoke it. Over the long course of history, whenever we have decided that some category of human beings is less than fully human, and so their rights need not be fully respected, even their right to life, terrible consequences have followed. That we in this time in this country have grown used to the consequences of Roe, that we now pass over them as part of the ordinary backdrop of our lives, does not make those consequences any less terrible. But only more chilling. Call it the banality of evil. It is the oldest of temptations: Eat of the fruit of this tree and you shall be as gods, having the knowledge of good and evil, deciding who shall live and who shall die. Yes, I’d been taught by Mary Warters in her biology and genetics classes at Centenary College in Shreveport that human life was one unbroken continuity from life to death, and the code to its development was present from its very first, microscopic origin. From its conception. But I wanted to believe human rights developed differently, especially the right to life. As if we had not all been endowed with certain unalienable rights. My reasons were compassionate. Who would not want to spare mothers the burden of carrying the deformed? Why not just allow physicians to eliminate the deformity? End of Problem.

I hadn’t yet come across Flannery O’Connor’s warning that tenderness leads to the gas chambers. Then . . . one day . . . I don’t know exactly when . . . Something Happened.

It always does. Eventually. It just takes longer for some of us to catch on. But I couldn’t help noticing after a while that the number of abortions in this country had begun to mount year after year—into the millions. Perfectly healthy babies were being aborted for socio-economic reasons. And among ethnic groups, the highest proportions of abortions were being performed on black women. (Last I checked, something like 37 percent of American abortions were being done on African-American women, though they make up less than 13 percent of the U.S. population.) Eugenics was showing its true face again. And it isn’t pretty. No matter how hard a later generation has tried to clean up Margaret Sanger’s image as the sainted founder of Planned Parenthood. The truth has a way of outing. In this case, in her own self-incriminating words. Abortion was also touted as a preventive for poverty. All you had to do was eliminate the poor. Even before they were born. They were, in the phrase of the advanced, Darwinian thinkers of the last century, surplus population. With a little verbal manipulation, any crime can be rationalized, even promoted. Verbicide precedes homicide. First dehumanize the other, then anything is permitted. The trick is to speak of fetuses, not unborn children. So long as the victims are a faceless abstraction, anything can be done to them. Vocabulary remains the decisive turning point. Like the Little Round Top, of every political engagement.

Just don’t look too closely at those sonograms. The way I studied the first pictures of my first grandson. Astounding. We are indeed strangely and wonderfully made.

By now the toll has reached some 50 million of those wondrous creations aborted in America since 1973. That’s not some abstract theory or philosophical argument. It’s a fact, and facts are stubborn things. Some even carry their own imperatives with them. And can be ignored only so long. So I changed my mind, and changed sides.

There is something about the miracle that is life, and the moral imperative to respect that dignity . . . that in the end will not be denied. Whether the issue is civil rights in the middle years of the 20th Century or abortion and euthanasia today, a still small voice keeps asking: Whose side are you on? That of life of or death? And commands: Uvacharta b’chayim. Choose Life. Not just at the beginning but at the end. For beware: You start off opposing abortion and pretty soon you’ll be expressing doubts about infanticide and euthanasia, too. One thing leads to another. One realization, one moment of connection, one little detail in a news story, and the light will come on. Be careful. That’s all it may take.

When Terri Schiavo—that was her name, remember?—when she was denied food and water by order of the court, it took her 13 long, slow, agonizing days to die. Of dehydration. Thirteen days. It would have been kinder to shoot her. But that would have been against the law, and we all know the law is just. Funny how, long after you’ve forgotten everything else about some big story at the time, one detail will stick in your mind. Have you ever sat by the bedside of a dying patient—a father or mother, perhaps, or anyone you loved—and given the patient a little chipped ice? And seen, or at least imagined, the relief and inaudible thank you in the drug-dimmed eyes? After all the futile treatments and the succession of helpless doctors, when grief has come long before death, you sit there with a little cracked ice for her parched mouth and throat, and think . . . Well, dammit, at least I can do this one little thing. At least I’m not totally useless. However much or however little the ice might help the patient, it certainly helps the caregiver. You realize why people go into nursing. Can there be any greater satisfaction than this?

But when the law decreed that one Terri Schiavo was to be given no food or water, it meant no food or water. In any form. That’s what the court, the sheriff’s deputies at the hospital, the whole clanking machinery of the law was there for—to see that the severe decree was carried out. That is what we have come to in this country. That’s what the new science of Bioethics at the dawn of the 21st Century had come down to in the end: No cracked ice for Terri Schiavo. The doctors and nurses who had cared for her for years were now forbidden to give her even a single chip.

Of all that whole long, confused cruel farrago of law and politics and what all else known as the Schiavo Affair, that’s the detail that has stayed with me. Long after I’ve forgotten even what she looked like. This is the point we have reached in our advanced era, or been reduced to. I suspect most Americans didn’t want to think about it all after a while, let alone talk about it. We wanted to Move On. It’s been said before: The evils that befall the world are not nearly so often the product of bad people as they are the result of good people who remain silent when they know they should speak out. Well, tonight we’re speaking out, and we’re not going away. All you people aren’t supposed to be here, you know. “There’s nothing to see here, Move along.” Didn’t you know this issue was settled years ago, decades ago? In a definitive decision of the Supreme Court of the United States. It is Settled Law. So we are told every time we express a doubt about this pervasive culture of death. Haven’t we heard of Roe v. Wade? Don’t we know we’re fighting for a lost cause? Abortion on demand is the law of the land, and always will be. So we’re told. Just as a different generation of Americans was told that Dred Scott v. Sandford was the law of the land. The slavery question had been settled once and for all. All the states were now going to be slave states. When it came to having any rights, Negro slaves were but chattel—property like any other. Case closed. To paraphrase my favorite line from a Ring Lardner short story: Shut up, they explained.

Those old-time abolitionists and Republicans and Free-Soil Democrats and Antislavery Whigs—whose portraits now adorn the walls of this hall here at the Union League club—were a motley crew, as variegated as we are tonight. They, too, were were fighting for a supposedly hopeless cause, that of freedom. But they understood something the sophisticates of their time didn’t: No good cause is forever lost. Because no cause is forever won. That’s the nature of politics. Of ideas. Of life.

Pro-lifers? We’re supposed to have vanished years ago, you and I.We’re all just antiques, holdovers from the past, cultural artifacts, living fossils. That’s what Arnold J. Toynbee, the great pseudo-historian of the past century, called us Jews. Just the remains of an earlier day, of an archaic way of thinking that once held life sacred. Why, we’re all just a collection of dry bones. Dry bones? These bones live. Reactionaries? You bet we are. We have so many horrors to react against.

Maybe once in a generation a great issue arises—a watershed issue. One that can no longer be put off, compromised, blurred . One that will no longer be denied. But returns again and again. With the obdurate force of a moral conviction. Slavery was such an issue. Civil rights was such an issue, and it led to a Second Reconstruction. If the distinguished jurists of the U.S. Supreme Court thought they could end this discussion, they couldn’t. We have only begun to fight; to speak, to witness, and we will be heard. Will we prevail some day? I have no idea. But allow me to share a secret: It doesn’t matter. Win or lose this case or that case, this election or that election, it doesn’t matter.

Whittaker Chambers, the long hard Cold War was just beginning, was convinced he was leaving the winning side for the losing side of history. As an old party man, he knew the iron Laws of History. Resistance was useless. The Party would win in the end. Big Brother would triumph. Forever and ever. It was inevitable. But it didn’t matter. He would witness.

In 1982, another witness, Walker Percy, M.D. and writer, wrote an imperishable little essay, “A View of Abortion, With Something to Offend Eveybody,” a title that is irresistible to any editorial writer worth his salt. Dr. Percy ended his essay with a few words addressed to the opposition: “To pro-abortionists: According to the opinion polls, it looks as if you may get your way. But you’re not going to have it both ways. You’re going to be told what you’re doing.’’ And that’s what matters. To bear witness.

We’ve become very good at preaching to the converted, we pro-lifers. So good at it we may have forgotten what Martin Luther King Jr. tried to teach us—that we have a hidden ally in the hearts of our opponents. And we must never cease appealing to it. They are not our enemies, but our allies in waiting. They have consciences. They’ll come around. I did.

In another publication, the Book of Daniel, it is recorded that the Hebrew children—Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego—were called before the high king of Babylon, the great and mighty Nebudchadnezzar, and told to bow down before the sacred idol he had made—or they would be flung into the fiery furnace. And “they made him an answer: If it be so, our god whom we served is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thy hand, O King. “But if not, be it known unto thee, O King, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou has set up.”

Let us trust that the cause of life will yet prevail. BUT IF NOT . . . we will not bow down before their idol, nor sacrifice our children to it. We will witness, and not grow faint. We will be strong and grow stronger. For we will strengthen one another. As on this night.

L’chaim! To Life!

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