When a group of Catholic high school students traveled to Washington, D.C. last week, their itinerary included what many would have previously considered to be irreconcilable goals: to celebrate Obama’s election during the inauguration, and then to attend the March for Life two days later to show their opposition to abortion. This group of 16 students, mostly juniors and seniors at Xaverian High School in the suburbs of Boston, represents what could be called a new wave in the pro-life movement. Their trip, with visits to a variety of landmarks and individuals promoting viewpoints that contribute to a consistent ethic of life, is an example of how the landscape of the pro-life movement is shifting, starting with some of the nation’s youngest independent Catholic thinkers.
“Underneath the surface, I think there are a lot of people who are trying to come to the middle ground of reducing the number of abortions,” said Senior Matt McNeill. That common ground — between the polar extremes of the traditional pro-life aim of overturning Roe v. Wade and the pro-choice goal of upholding it — was the emergent theme of this year’s trip.
This is the fourth year that students at Xavarian have taken a “Consistent Ethic of Life Pilgrimage” to Washington, D.C. Each year, they prepare for the trip by extensively studying, debating, and discussing “pro-life” issues in the classroom. These include hot button issues such as abortion, war and the death penalty; but also cover topics such as poverty, homelessness, and education. Traditionally, during the trip itself students meet with organizers of political action on each of these fronts; visit museums and monuments that pertain to issues of life, such as the Holocaust Museum and the Native American Museum; and attend the March for Life on January 22. However, this year the trip took a new twist when Obama was elected and organizers decided to attend the inauguration as well.
Grappling with the nuances
Students who attended the trip represent a wide array of opinions on both Obama and the abortion issue, from students who voted for McCain in the general election to professed Democrats with no qualms about legalized abortion. But the more telling perspective comes not from these two extremes, but rather from the majority of students who find themselves somewhere between the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” labels. Overwhelmingly, students voice some support for a consistent ethic of life while grappling with many of the nuances intrinsic to the topic.
“I think that the consistent ethic of life is a good principle, and it’s very air tight,” said Junior Rob Finn. “In that sense, I think that it’s good thing. But in terms of my personal beliefs, I question certain parts of it.” Other students stated that while they ultimately hope to eliminate the need for abortion, for now a more practical solution is working to reduce abortion rates. “I feel strongly that no mother that finds out that she’s pregnant wants to have an abortion out of malice,” said McNeill. “She feels cornered and feels that she has no other alternative.” If the cultural ethos is changed to encourage women to have children, and young single mothers are supported through social programs, fewer women will ultimately seek abortions.
According to campus minister Mike Fitzgerald, Xaverian, an all-boys Catholic school that is composed largely of middle to upper class boys, is independent from the Boston Archdiocese. While faculty members espouse a variety of political beliefs, most students come from families that are conservative or right of center. However, Fitzgerald said, the parents he interacted with were overwhelmingly supportive and not critical of the goals of the trip. “Most parents appreciated that it was a historical inauguration,” said Fitzgerald. Also, the trip’s goal of understanding the complexities of a several of pro-life topics was something that parents seemed to understand and support.
“We saw these ardently pro-life folks, and some very ardently pro-choice folks, and there was no dialogue,” said Fitzgerald. “I feel like there is a new group emerging that’s talking about dialogue.” Many of these young Catholics see Obama, who has modified some of the traditional pro-choice language of the Democratic platform to be conciliatory to the pro-life movement, as someone seeking that common ground.
“It seems like Obama is trying to say that he is, in a way, pro-life,” said Junior Ryan Mee. “Some people who are pro-life feel that Obama is helping them, because he is one of the first Democrats that wants to reduce the number of abortions that are performed.”
Hoping to create dialogue
Students hoped to attend both events to create dialogue rather than further polarize the debate. They scrutinized simple elements, such as what types of signs to carry at the March for Life, to ensure they aimed for reconciliation, not confrontation.
However, despite the students’ hopes of acting as mediators, the trip did contain moments of tension. Mee recounted one incident in which a group of teenage girls approached him while he was holding an anti-abortion sign in front of the Supreme Court, and attempted to start an argument. “How would you feel if a 16-year old girl was pregnant and didn’t want the kid,” one of the girls prodded. Sensing that the group was looking for confrontation, Mee tried to give an honest answer while finding a more conciliatory tone. They persisted in an aggressive line of questioning, and ultimately one of the campus ministers stepped in to mediate the conversation.
Traces of the abortion debate’s “either/or” mentality remained at the March for Life too, where students reported that many speakers denounced Obama as being overarchingly against the pro-life cause, and many protesters had signs specifically targeting Obama and Biden. “Some people don’t want to have a dialogue,” Fitzgerald said. “I feel like that’s where the breakdown is happening. The pro-life folks tend to not want to have a conversation: it’s black and white and they don’t want to talk about the gray area in between.”
Subtle signs of the new middle ground were also present throughout the trip. Fitzgerald recounted the presence of numerous signs that read “Yes We Can End Abortion.” Senior Rob Finn described the forum held at Georgetown University, which emphasized support of women as being the first step towards curbing abortion rates. And perhaps these students themselves, so eager to bring change regardless of their political party, are the most touching sign. “Obama’s campaign slogan was hope, and I do have a lot of hope for the future,” said McNeill. “It is a huge thing to have the first African American president elected, and hopefully that momentum will carry into the pro-life movement, and we will start taking those first steps towards reducing abortions.”