Each week, I require that every student in my 11th grade Catholic morality class bring in an article about a current event that pertains to the moral issue under study. A few weeks ago, as we were beginning the chapter on the 5th Commandment -- thou shall not kill -- one student asked why abortion was covered in the section "Conservation of Existing Life." We launched into an erudite discussion about the Catholic Church's stance on when life begins and about the duty of Catholics to protect and to honor life in all of its forms.
I had opened class that day with a quote from Pope John Paul II's encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life): "There will never be justice, including equality, development and peace, for women or for men, unless there is an unfailing determination to respect, protect, love, and serve life -- every human life, at every stage, and in every situation." This is the key to building a culture of life, I had explained -- respect for every human life, in every circumstance.
During this lesson I had never dreamed that in a matter of days I would have to appeal to this message repeatedly -- first, as the students faced the aftermath of the nearby Boston bombing, then as the horrors of the Gosnell trial began to unfold. Yes, I cautiously urged, we must respect the lives of the men who bombed the Boston Marathon. Yes, the lives of those who hurt us are still sacred in the eyes of God. I reminded them that if they truly want to embrace teenage rebellion, they should try to follow Christ's teaching in this world. Love your enemies sounds better on paper than in practice.
We diligently followed the Gosnell trial in my class. The students were horrified at the atrocities that took place in Gosnell's clinic, though the verdict reached by the jury Monday inspires some hope, albeit slight. Gosnell was convicted of first-degree murder because the jury agreed that he had killed three babies that were born alive. The tacit acknowledgment that these lives were precious and as such require reparation is a hopeful one. But we are far from Pope John Paul II's culture of life. If Gosnell had not botched these abortions somehow, then these children would not have been born alive and there would have been no trial at all. In Pennsylvania abortion is legal up to 24 weeks or the 6th month of pregnancy; it would have been perfectly legal for Gosnell to abort these babies if they had remained in the womb, rather than emerge helplessly as they did into a hostile world. When asked about the verdict this afternoon on the radio, one commentator explained, "They were babies because they were born alive." Clearly we still have a long way to go before we can affirm that life begins at conception.
Yet the real challenge lies before us. On May 21, the jury will convene to determine whether or not Gosnell will be sentenced to life in prison or to the death penalty. There will be loud voices clamoring for death for this man who brutally killed these babies and was "indirectly" responsible for the death of at least one mother.
If we are truly pro-life, we will heed Pope John Paul II's words and pray that the jury grants Gosnell life in prison. In so doing, we will affirm that life is sacred in all forms -- whether that life is a cluster of cells at the earliest stages of development, or an innocent child drawing her first breath, or a convicted killer who has heartlessly murdered countless precious children. May we love radically, pray for the lives that have been lost, and choose life.
"I have set before you life and death... Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live." Deuteronomy 30:19
Jennifer Manning is a Catholic schoolteacher in Massachusetts and a volunteer with Catholic Voices USA