Thursday, September 14, 2023

Human and Vulnerable

 Shortly before he went off to prison, my friend Will Goodman told me a bit about a small community in DC that is exploring "vulnerability and solidarity." I mentioned that the first piece I wrote about pro-life activism was about vulnerability. He was interested, so I went looking for it, and located it. I wrote it for the 1976 National Right to Life Convention, in Boston, in the summer of 1976. It was my intention to reproduce it unchanged, but I had to make two small changes -- replacing language that was insensitive and has since that time been discarded by people who listen respectfully and try to speak respectfully. 

Human and Vulnerable                                        

by John O'Keefe


I find it inexpressibly odd that in our protection of the weakest members of society our means are all heavy-handed and overbearing. This discrepancy, between end and means, causes in me a deep skepticism about the nature of the pro-life struggle as it is perceived by pro-life workers. The possibility of resolving this discrepancy causes in me a deep hope.


I.     Recognition

We mean to assert our recognition of the unborn as fully human, our brothers and sisters regardless of their size or living conditions. We claim that we recognize these helpless creatures as human, sharing with us some unique kind of life that we regard as sacred.

For me, recognition of another person as a human being usually involves an adjustment of my own self-image. I remember the first time I recognized another human being as human, human like me. I think I was six. My best friend and I were digging up “gold nuggets” under the Maple tree near his house. I said,” I'll dig on this side and you dig on that side”; and he disagreed, “No, I'm going to dig right here.” I was shocked, partly by this challenge to my own childish tyrannical authority, but more by a sudden inarticulate recognition that he didn't know that I was the center of the universe. In fact, he had his own point of view. He saw through his own eyes, not through mine. In recognizing that he had a point of view different from mine, I had to change my image of myself. I had to let go of an utter egocentricity. People existed even when I wasn't watching, and they fought thoughts that I wasn't thinking. I do not want to belabor this incident too much; my point here is single and simple: my experience is that recognition of another human being involves a change in my own self-image.

Recognition is not always revolutionary, like that first recognition. But whenever I recognize the humanity of somebody on the other side of some internal boundary of mine, I have had to change my own self-image. The first time I recognized the humanity of a black man, I had to drop my own whiteness as an important part of my self-image, my understanding of my own humanity. When I recognized a retarded [sic – written in 1976] man as human, I had to let go of my intelligence as the peculiar depth in me that was uniquely human. When I recognized a cripple [sic – written in 1976] as human, my physical prowess no longer made me human in my own eyes.

In my experience, recognition of another human being involves changing my own self-image, usually only slightly, occasionally in a major way. The change often involves letting go of some accident of my own person, like whiteness, health, intelligence. The change involves a challenge to see more deeply what makes me human.

It would be ridiculous to imply that we ignore the humanity of a person with whom we have not yet established an I-Thou relationship. Of course we tend to take a reasonable attitude – a person who looks like a human is presumed human until proven otherwise. But this generous presumption often breaks down; when it breaks down, when we find some internal barrier to recognition, then we need an experience of recognition and a change in self-image.


II.  Recognition of the unborn

what is the change in image that accompanies a recognition of an unborn child as human? For me, the remarkable difference between my habitual self-image and the self-image that this new recognition requires has to do with power. Babies are helpless, and I do not usually think of myself as helpless. Before I can experience any sense of kinship with an unborn child, I must explore my own dependence vulnerability, poverty. When I am not aware of my own dependence I cannot honestly speak of recognizing an unborn child as human. It is just an idea, an hypothesis. Without an experience of my own weakness, even helplessness, I cannot talk about the humanity of the unborn with any deeply held conviction unless I experience their poverty, their humanity is for me just an idea.


III.                        The inconsistency

At the present time, the major thrust of the pro-life movement is to get a Constitutional Amendment. I suggest that such an approach does not immediately give evidence of any new understanding of powerlessness. An appeal to the highest authority of the most powerful government available is a surprising act from people who claim to recognize the humanity of the helpless. There is a deep inconsistency between this attempt to enlist the aid of the U. S. Government, with all its widespread authority, affecting 50 states laws, with police and courts and writs of summons, and seals and badges and flags, with armies and navies and colossal nuclear missiles – a deep gulf between all this and the quiet recognition in the depths of the heart that dependence is a part of the human condition, that the unborn helpless are our brothers and sisters. To go from recognizing the unborn to appealing to the U.S. Government looks like a flight from recognition, appears to be a rejection of a new insight, not the logical next step.

I hope to be understood. I am not criticizing the push for a constitutional amendment completely. But it is an odd step, an incomplete step, a contradictory step, and perhaps largely futile step. I think there is other work to be done. As long as the primary thrust of the movement is toward invoking the power of the U.S. Government, it will be suspect, and probably ineffective. When the movement embodies a deep sense of dependence, I think it will become credible and honest.


IV.                       The means

There are a variety of means available for changing the pro abortion stance of our country. The most important, of course, is the construction of a society in which hope is possible, in which a woman will be less likely to feel she is doing a child a great disservice to bring him or her into the world. This is a never ending job; the need for love is eternal. Love is our first job, the first commandment we are given. Love must be our driving force, our motivation when dealing with abortion and the despair that abortion implies. The importance of love cannot be overemphasized. We must love the children we try to defend and the abortionists we defend them from. But there are more specific steps to be taken.

Father Drinan, the Jesuit congressman from Massachusetts, has been fond of recommending to pro-life groups that they should follow the example of the black civil rights groups. What he meant, I think, was that pro-life forces should try to work through the courts, not through the legislature. What he really meant, I think, is just that he wants us to go away and not bother him because he is not going to risk his career to support us. Although he professes to believe in the divinity of what appears to be a piece of bread the size of quarter, he has doubts about the humanity of what appears to be a small child. Anyway, let us look at his advice: follow the example of the civil rights movement. Father Drinan may have given some good advice, unintentionally. The civil rights movement, besides the recent court cases, had a number of aspects, including legislation, sit-ins, two amendments to the Constitution, a civil war, and years of inflammatory (and/or educational) rhetoric. Much of that took place before Father Drinan's time.

On the whole, I think we are doing better then the civil rights movement. The abolitionists did not work hard to provide alternatives to slavery; we are increasingly developing alternatives to abortion. While that social reform involved a civil war, ours, God willing, need not. But I think we have a great deal to learn from that movement. Specifically we should think about sit-ins.

The reasons I see for sit-ins are so numerous that I am not sure where to begin. Sit-ins embody an honest picture of the pro-life struggle: just as the unborn child is dependent on his mother for life and speaks to her only mutely, by his or her simple presence, so a group that is sitting in at an abortion clinic is dependent on the community and speaks most clearly by its simple presence. By sitting in, we really do say, physically as well as verbally: I am with that child and if you reject him, you must first reject (eject) me.

A sit-in is addressed primarily to the women there planning to get abortions and to the clinic staff, and secondarily to the rest of the community. That makes sense to me, because it is the pregnant woman and her counselors that we want to convince. The child will always be dependent on the mother regardless of our interference. The surest way to protect the child is to persuade his/her mother to be protective. Although I am not opposed to intervening when a woman decides to have an abortion and a doctor agrees to do it, still i would vastly prefer to persuade them beforehand to act generously.

One great advantage of citizens is that we will no longer be an insulated minority preaching self-righteously and indignantly from a safe distance to a group of women who will certainly suffer if they listen to us. Aborted children are powerless, but women are also relatively powerless in our society now. If we push them around, we are bullies, regardless of whether or not we are “right.”

It almost seems to me that the tactic of citizens could have been devised specifically for us, and developed over the years for our benefit, so that the tactic would be there when we wanted it. The tactic embodies an acknowledgement of our dependence that is necessary to our recognition of the unborn. Our vulnerability will speak, more effectively than my rhetoric.

Is the abortion question merely a particular battle line in the continuing ideological struggle between “liberals” and “conservatives”? If so, then the proper way to fight is with speeches, conventions, legislation, etc. Or is it truly a question of basic human rights, cutting across ideological lines? If it is the latter, then we should be willing to risk more than our vote. Our depth of commitment will speak; the risks we take will speak; Our vulnerability will speak.

A sit in has eternal echoes, stirs the timeless. When you make a decision to protect the helpless, a great thing has happened. But when that decision, that recognition, is physically embodied, when you stand physically in a clinic and say with your whole being, “that child is my brother or sister,” the echoes are eternal. Adsum, Domine – here I am, Lord, I come to do your will. Our presence and vulnerability speak.

V.  Conclusion

The right-to-life movement receives a great deal of adverse criticism. Some of the criticisms cancel each other out like the accusations on the one hand that our emotions obscure any clear thought and on the other hand that we are cold blooded in our rationality to the point of excluding legitimate emotions. But some of the criticisms seem to me to be valid. I think we do look like a self-righteous minority preaching and narrow ideology from a safe distance.

My response is to explore my real reasons for being involved in the movement. I find that my real reasons are as simple as “hello, friend, sister, brother.” I recognize the unborn as human. But when I look back at the movement, I do not see this simple recognition embodied in it. I see the tactics that the Democrats and Republicans use, tactics proper to domestic party politics, but puzzling elsewhere.

I think we should shift our tactics, to share recognition, not preach ideology. Let us sit in, no longer safe and distant and preaching. Our vulnerability and our presence will speak.


John O’Keefe

Newton, Massachusetts

June 1976