TUALATIN — In 1874, on West 41stStreet in mid-Manhattan, in an area commonly called Hell’s Kitchen, Mary Ellen McCormack lived with her mother. Mary Ellen was 10 years old. Every day, according to the neighbors, Mary Ellen’s mother would beat her with a whip. Mary Ellen would go about the neighborhood covered with bruises from the beatings. Finally the neighbors had had enough of the beatings and the crying and the yelling from Mary Ellen’s apartment. The neighbors contacted a local government agency, the Department of Public Charities and Corrections, which managed the poor houses and jails in the area. In response to the neighbors’ complaint, the department sent out an employee to investigate the situation. Her name was Etta Angell Wheeler.
Ms. Wheeler was appalled at Mary Ellen’s condition. The beatings and neglect had taken a heavy toll on the health of the young girl. Etta first contacted the police but they would do nothing because, at the time, there was no law against beating one’s child. The discipline of children was quite harsh then and people were expected to mind their own business. Etta then did something quite creative. She got in touch with Henry Bergh, who was the founder and manager of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. One of his responsibilities was to intervene when horses were being abused or neglected in the stables in New York, and, if needs be, take the horses into protective custody. Etta convinced him to intervene in Mary Ellen’s situation. Mr. Bergh got a lawyer and asked the court to apply the laws that protected animals to Mary Ellen’s case. He said that Mary Ellen should be protected at least at the same level of an animal. The judge agreed and issued an order to that effect. Mary Ellen was soon removed by the police from the custody of her abusive mother and never returned. As a result of the publicity surrounding the case of Mary Ellen McCormack, child protection laws were eventually passed by local jurisdictions throughout the United States.
The case of Mary Ellen McCormack is an instance in which the commission of a moral evil, viz., child abuse and neglect, has not yet been addressed in the laws at the State and Federal levels. However, regarding the treatment of children, society did indeed change dramatically and passed laws to protect children. Sadly, though, even with these current child protection laws, on average three American children die every day from parental neglect and abuse.
There is today another instance much like Mary Ellen’s in which a grave moral issue is not being reflected in the laws of the land. It has to do with the abuse and deaths of countless unborn children through elected abortions. Of course, the Catholic Church views all abortions as wrong, as intrinsic evil, and that there can never be a justification for an abortion. The Church teaches that the life of the unborn child begins at conception and takes precedence over the life of the mother. Before 1973, there had, in fact, been some degree of regulation of abortion in secular law at the State level in many places. However, on January 22, 1973, in the case of Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court, on a 7-2 decision, overturned State laws regulating abortion, declaring that these abortion laws had violated women’s rights to due process. Since 1973, many sincere people throughout the country have worked very hard to stop abortions. Their hope has been that, if they send people to Congress who promise to pass laws to end abortion, then that would take care of the matter. Unfortunately, as of this year, it has been 39 years since the passage of Roe v Wade. What have elected people done to stop the abortions in this country? What has happened as a result of that hard work of their supporters? Nothing. Nothing has happened in 39 years. Abortion is as alive and well today as it was in 1973. The people who promised to end abortion have not done so. They have, indeed, accomplished lots of other things on their agendas, but they have never seemed to get around to ending abortion. That reality is very frustrating for many people. Another frustrating reality is that both White House administrations since the year 2000 have continued to pour millions of Federal dollars into Planned Parenthood and have so aided the conducting of abortions.
How long must we wait for someone to do something about abortion? Do we have to wait another 39 years? If so, then I will not live long enough to see anything ever done about abortion by anyone, in spite of all countless promises.
Earlier in my life, I was employed as a Social Worker in the field of Child Welfare for 22 years. Based on that experience, after working with many pregnant women, I believe that most women want to keep their babies as long as there is enough help to support them. That help may come from their families, their spouses, their friends, medical personnel, or social service professionals in the community. But it must come from somewhere. Based upon my practical experience in the field of social service, I believe that abortion is almost always a desperate act by a desperate person. If you give a pregnant woman enough help, you give her hope. If you give her hope, she will more likely want to keep her child. If you take away that help, then you may take away her hope and she will more likely choose to abort her child.
When I was working with children and families in the 1970’s and 1980’s, a lot of money was being poured into services for pregnant women. This funding came from Federal, State and private sources. With this generous level of funding available, pregnant women in need could be given free prenatal care and delivery, pediatric services after delivery, a safe place to live, counseling and supportive services from a number of agencies, education, job placement and free child care. The typical choice a woman faced at the time was whether to keep her baby or to give her baby up for adoption. Any talk of abortion was really quite rare. In the 1990’s, however, there began a dramatic cut back in social and medical services to pregnant women. In the ensuing years, needy pregnant mothers lost much of the support that had helped them previously. You know what happened after that? The abortion rate in Oregon went up. What we learned from that experience is that, if you take away the help, you take away the hope. Women with hope tend to keep their babies. Women without hope tend to abort their babies.
I suggest that, as the People of God, we stop waiting for the people back East to do something about abortion. After 39 years of nothing happening, I think we can see a pattern here. I propose that we each began looking now for ways to aid pregnant women and women with small children and to alleviate whatever desperation they may be experiencing. This will not be easy. So much ground has been lost in the last twenty years. I suggest that, rather than blindly supporting people who make big promises about stopping abortion but do not seem to ever follow through, that we look for people, programs and measures that support services to pregnant women. We can also roll up our own sleeves and get to work helping pregnant women in local shelters, community programs and outreach efforts.
If there is a direct correlation between services to pregnant women and the rate of abortion, which I think there is, why would people decide to cut back on those services? Let’s be honest now. Why would well-meaning people cease to support the very women who feel forced into having abortions for want of sufficient help? I am sorry to say that it appears that it was simply to save a buck, a lousy dollar! The lives of unborn children have been put at risk if not totally lost by the thousands, if not millions, because people were too selfish and self-absorbed to support these mothers. Instead of worrying about saving money, maybe, we, as Catholics, ought to be saving unborn babies by giving enough and doing enough to provide pregnant women with the hope that there is sufficient help available for them, if they choose to keep their unborn babies. I know that effort will be expensive and I know that it will require a lot of hard work and generous giving. However, I propose that, instead of worrying about saving a dollar, let’s save a baby. The time to begin that work is now.
The writer is pastor of Resurrection Parish in Tualatin.