Life Watch: Remembering Joe Stanton

Phil Moran called from Boston to say that Joe Stanton had died. He was, for many years, like a candle blowing in the wind. He had survived polio as a youngster, and in recent years he had been in a wheel chair, and so it was a minor miracle that he had managed to be such a vigorous presence on into his late seventies. In fact, he was a kind of limitless source of energy in the pro-life movement, always prodding us on. He had assignments, marching orders, for each of us. And I mean each of us: Bill Bulger, president of the Massachusetts Senate; Joe Mulligan, the former corporation counsel in Boston; Jim McFadden at Human Life Review; to say nothing of his adherents at the Harvard Medical School, the White House staff, and an assortment of writers, lawyers, housewives, kibitzers, and even, occasionally, a college professor. But most of all, directives for Fran Hogan and Marianne Rae-Luthin—the relentless piling on of demands, a mark of his confidence and affection, never to be refused. He was on the phone, on the fax; he was sending us huge packages with articles, testimonies, transcripts of hearings. He was always trying to stay a bit ahead, always pondering some bold move to outflank the party of abortion.

Some of his plans seemed a longer stretch than usual, an even heftier imbalance of hope over sober reckoning. But it could be said at least for Joe, as it cannot be said for many people steeped in politics, that his strategic moves were always anchored in the principles that the movement had to plant. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, for example, there was a passion in some quarters for withdrawing American firms from South Africa. Just how such a withdrawal would help end apartheid and improve the lot of ordinary people was an enduring puzzle, brushed aside by the surety that this move, somehow, would work. If not, the architects of the scheme would be left with a fruitless effort whose coherence in principle could never quite be explained. In contrast, Joe’s schemes might not reach their fullest effect, but no one could ever doubt the justification for making any of them, in principle, a life’s work. In that vein, I was a bit skeptical when Joe sought to organize a new movement to draft anew, and affirm once again, the Hippocratic Oath. The doctors who had absorbed the “sociological” justifications for abortion would not be affected now, any more than in the past, by a ringing restatement of the oath. Still less were they likely to be impressed when it was affirmed by some of us who were philosophers and not medical doctors. Yet, could there be any doubt that the move bore a coherent relation to the ground on which we had been working for years in the pro-life movement? Even if that restatement of the oath did not change a single mind in the next few years, who could doubt that the project in principle was worth doing? And sure enough—wonder of wonders—Joe managed, with that simple move, to strike a chord out there. The restatment of the oath seemed to take on wings of its own, spreading quickly across the world. One young doctor in Holland, immured in a culture of euthanasia, said that the oath gave him something to hold on to, a ground on which to stand again.

Of course, it made a difference that the motor force propelling any of these schemes was Dr. Joseph Stanton. The medical degree, earned at Yale, was all the more sweetly earned, when we recall just what it required, of conviction and stamina, to spring back from a childhood afflicted with polio. The summer he came down with polio three other children in his family were stricken. Joe’s father himself had been a doctor, and he kept his wits now as he ministered to his family. But beyond that, it mattered profoundly to Joe that he was enveloped, during this crisis, by the loving devotions of his parents and his platoon of brothers and sisters. His own family, begotten and nurtured with his wife Mary, would contain, with the same measure of devotion and love, eleven brothers and sisters. It was the young priest, Fr. Thomas Stanton, who was delegated by his father to fetch me, several years ago, at a dinner in Boston, to bring me to Cardinal Law. Thomas was the messenger, but it was the long arm of Joe Stanton, taking the occasion to bring together the people he wanted to connect with one another. It was the sainted Pat Nixon in Detroit who led Joe to me in the late ’70s, and he in turn would alert me to this new figure, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a recent recruit, certain to be an important presence in the pro-life movement.

When the legends of Joe Stanton are collected, they should contain this story: At a meeting, in Washington, of the board of National Right to Life, one member was stricken by a heart attack. Joe and Carolyn Gerster, two physicians on the board, ministered to the patient and rode in the ambulance. It became evident to Joe that the driver was headed to the wrong place, a clinic that could not deal with this crisis. Joe directed him to a hospital geared to cope with the problem. But in the true style of Washington, the driver had his official route, and it did not lead to the hospital. Joe finally threatened the driver with his cane. When it dawned on the driver that Joe would indeed bring that cane down on him, he discovered possibilities that were never contained in his instructions. The doctors on the scene reported that if the ambulance had arrived five minutes later, or at some other place, the patient would not have survived.

Marianne Rae-Luthin was in high school when she began typing for Dr. Stanton, helping with his pro-life activities; and now, twenty-five years later, she is still working with him, this time as the president of his Value of Life Committee. She tells me that plans are afoot to assemble these legends in an account of the life and works of Joe Stanton. This new book will find its place, along with his collected papers, in the Joseph R. Stanton Library, established a couple of years ago, at the Convent of the Sisters of Life, in the Bronx. Marianne reflected the sentiment that spread instantly among his friends: How could he be gone, no longer there? And who could possibly take his place?

But Joe had offered, several years ago, the deepest consolation, which may still sustain us. Clinton had been elected, the party of abortion was in control of all parts of the national government, and this seemed to be, for us, the darkest of times. I expressed to him the depths of my own disappointment at the drift of affairs— when he turned to me, and I was mildly surprised to see, in his face, the usual intensity suddenly vanished, and replaced with the most striking serenity. He then remarked that if we had succeeded over the years in saving but one life, all of these exertions would have been justified. As Chesterton once said, “despair to a Catholic is itself spiritual sin and blasphemy.” But that sentiment of Joe’s, so earnestly meant, has marked for me, ever since, a telling sign of the pro-life movement. If this movement had been composed of fanatics, it would have burst into violence long ago. It has been preserved in a course of lawfulness precisely because the people who compose it have not been animated by a vengeful anger. They have managed to find serenity, even in the face of their disappointments, because they do know, in that ancient maxim, that one who saves a single life saves the world.

It was probably that sense of the matter that finally moved Joe to engage in a sit-in outside an abortion clinic, in the hope of effecting a rescue. This frail man, hobbled with arthritis and bearing a cane, could not have been a fearsome presence. And yet the police, in the sweep of their reactions, made him a target of their pummeling. The incident may merely remind us of the passions that may be unloosed, as even the gentlest folk seek to protect the most vulnerable, and come to the edge of the law.

Flashback to January 1991: I was on leave in Washington working on a book, and I walked over from my office to join the March for Life. In the ocean of people gathered at the Washington Monument, moving toward the Capitol, I began to search for the Massachusetts delegation. It was an experience replicated many times over the years, and it happened again this time as it happened in the past: I walked about, heading somewhere in the crowd, until the Massachusetts delegation found me. All at once, Joe was there, this time in his wheelchair, with Mary pushing him. I took over for a while from Mary as we headed down Pennsylvania Avenue, with Joe slightly in advance of the delegation. He nodded toward the delegation moving behind us, and said, “Look who’s there.” It was Cardinal Law, in a windbreaker, helping to hold up the banner, and leading the chants. “Why don’t you go back there for a moment,” said Joe, “I think he’d want to see you.” I did, and the cardinal held me round the shoulders, with a loving grip that felt as though it could last forever.

The cardinal was there, at the funeral Mass for Joe, but the homily was given by Fr. Thomas Stanton, according to the wishes expressed by his father. Joe had recalled his own father’s death: Separately, he had called in all of his children to convey his love and say goodbye, and Joe said that he would like, in his time, to do the same thing. As it turned out, he did, and in his last conversation with Thomas, his request was clear: Say little about me; but offer a serious discussion of the Resurrection. And that was done, rendered simply and well. Joe had lived, and died, the son of his father, enfolded at the end by the sons he raised in the ways of fathers.


Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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