On Tuesday, Nov. 8, the voters of Mississippi will have a very rare privilege in today’s America, so much of which is governed by unelected judges and unaccountable bureaucrats, where so many basic issues seem invulnerable to change: Those voters will have the chance to make an existential decision, to vote with a flip of their fingers on whether or not human life has any value or meaning. They will vote on whether or not the law of their state should deem an preborn child a person.
Of course, in some sense we make profound decisions many times each day, when we accept the aid of grace and do the right thing, or shrug it off and sin. Each tiny sin says “no” to eternal life, while each virtuous act says “yes.” But we rarely see things so starkly, and indeed if we did we probably couldn’t function. For most of us, it only happens a few times in our journey that we are presented the chance to say a stark “yes” or “no,” to exercise what some theologians have called a “fundamental option.” I’m reminded of the incidents in the Gospels where Jesus calls a fisherman to drop his nets, a tax collector to leave his stall, “and follow me.” We aren’t told, but I wonder if there weren’t a number of potential apostles who told Christ to take a hike. Even Our Lady was utterly free to reject the invitation of Gabriel; our God does not act like Zeus and pluck human brides like fruit from a tree.
Since Roe v. Wade removed the sanctity of human life from the realm of free democratic decision-making by an act of breath-taking judicial hubris, tens of millions of American women have acted—many under enormous pressure—to say “no” to life. An equal number of men have surely cooperated in these actions. By some estimates, one in three American women in the post-Roe generation have ended the lives of their preborn children. It won’t be in this life that we will understand the toll that has exacted on their souls.
I know what one such act cost me, and what it made me decide to do. I would like to cast some light on the choice Mississippi’s voters will be making by sharing my story here.
It was a Saturday morning in the fall of 1988. I lay half-awake, half-asleep, my body aching from the football game the night before. The sound of footsteps coming up the stairs and the smell of bacon from the kitchen stirred me a little. The door to my room opened and someone fell under my blankets. Pulling back the blanket expecting to see my baby sister, I was surprised to see my girlfriend looking up with tears in her eyes.
My first thought was she’d had a fight with her father. Two words and my life would be forever changed. “I’m pregnant.”
I don’t know why, but I was overcome with happiness. My girlfriend began to cry and laugh and we just held each other, doing that, not saying a word for minutes.
We spent that Saturday in my room, which was half a child’s and half a man’s — with a Walter Payton poster on the wall, a Scooby Doo pillowcase, and artifacts from each of my 17 years spread around it — trying to make a plan. We came up with a very simple one: I would drop out of high school and join the Army. Katie would wear baggy sweaters and take vitamins. And we would live happily ever after. That was the plan.
And soon after I was on my way to Basic Training, my Scooby-Doo pillow case filled with the required list of supplies: two pair of socks, two pair of underwear, toothpaste, toothbrush and a razor blade. Katie took her vitamins and wore her baggy sweaters. With less than two weeks left of Basic, I got a letter from Katie saying: “If the baby is a boy you can pick his name but if it’s a girl I want to name her Jessica.” It was a deal.
On the Sunday before we would “graduate,” I was cleaning pots and pans. Not having been raised a Christian, I didn’t go to church, so I often pulled extra detail on Sundays. A friend came into the kitchen and said, “Jones, your girlfriend is on the phone…. She’s crying.” I never heard a woman cry like that before or since. Her soul was crying. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” was all she could say.
Then her father grabbed the phone. “I know your secret and your secret is gone…. I took Katie to get an abortion!”
A drill sergeant reached over my shoulder and hung up the receiver. I hit him as hard as I could. Another sergeant grabbed me and dragged me into his office. I was sobbing out: “He killed my baby! He killed my baby — call the police!”
At this, that large Army Ranger started crying himself. He made me explain. When I did, he looked blank. “Private, we can’t. Abortion is legal.” I just stared at him. So my captain delivered the Cliff Notes version of Roe v. Wade, then gave me a roll of quarters. As I zombie-walked to the PX, I was heartbroken at the loss of my child and the sound of Katie’s pain. But just as strongly what I felt was shock and confusion: This is all perfectly legal. Under law, a fetus is not a person. That was the rotten heart of Roe v. Wade (and it still is today — despite three pro-life presidents who won office dripping with promises).
I had never been to church in my life. I was a high school dropout. I didn’t know much. But I knew that my daughter Jessica was a person. She was worth something. She had a human dignity you don’t grant a lump of skin cells. I also knew that a terrible injustice had been done — to all three of us. When I got to the PX, I called my girlfriend and we talked straight through that roll of quarters. Then the mechanized voice on the phone warned, “You have one minute left. Please deposit change.” I was desperate to say something comforting before we ran out of time, so I blurted out what was in my heart. “I am going to end abortion — for you!” I know now that that is a foolish promise for any one person to make — but I really meant it. And I still do.
I ask each of you reading this to do something for the Katies of America, for the Jessicas, for the goofball high-school dropouts like I was. We must take away the fatal choice, the deadly temptation that is abortion on demand. It seems so easy, it makes things so much simpler, it wipes the slate clean of inconvenient human lives… by pretending they aren’t real. It tells the young and the scared that they can have a more abundant life, if only they will accept this tiny lie about a tiny creature whom they’ll never have to see. “Just play pretend with us, with us judges and doctors and lawyers, and everything will go back to what it was before.”
I ask you to support the Personhood Initiative—with your votes, if you live in Mississippi, with your voices if you don’t. There are some well-meaning people who say it goes too far, it cuts too close to the heart of Roe v. Wade, and it will backfire. They want us to keep on nibbling away at the edges of this monster. But we have been trying to do that for almost 40 years—and what have we accomplished? American abortion laws are the most permissive in the world, far worse than in “decadent” Western Europe. And why? I would argue because we haven’t faced down the lie and told the truth: A preborn child is a person. Period. Our laws should reflect that. And we should fight until our laws tell the truth. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said to sum up the message of his work: “Live not by lies.” Or better: “The truth shall set you free.”
It took the “radical” decision of Brown v. Board of Education—which many civil rights advocates were afraid went too far, too fast—to drive a stake in the heart of legal segregation in America. It took Rev. Martin Luther King demanding real, complete, equality to make our country listen. No wonder his niece, Dr. Alveda King, is a leader in the Personhood Campaign. In this new and even graver assault on human dignity, this lie that squats at the heart of our legal system, we need to do something simple: to tell the truth.
Extending the protective blanket of legal personhood from the moment life begins through all stages of life is the first step our country can take toward renewing itself in countless other areas. When I “manned up” and joined the Army to care for my child, it helped turn this boy into a man. When we gain the strength to tell the truth and protect the most helpless Americans, we will also gain the courage and grace to face our other challenges. We certainly won’t solve them by hiding, running, and lying.
On Tuesday, November 8th, I will be in Mississippi, helping to get out the vote. Twenty years ago I made a crying girl a promise I could never keep, by myself. None of us can change the world all by ourselves. But we can tell the truth. When we vote for the truth, we tell the truth together, and that can change the world. In fact, as Our Lady knew when she told the angel, “yes,” the Truth is the only thing that can.