Each year in January, my seminary in Philadelphia canceled classes for a day so that seminarians could take part in the annual pro-life march in the nation’s capital. I made the trip to Washington five times during my formation, but it wasn’t until one particular bus ride back that the Church’s most important lesson on life came home to me.
The day had been typical for January, overcast and cold. Everyone, worn from the trip, was settling in for the four-hour bus ride home. I wanted nothing more than to be back in my room with something hot to drink. To distract myself, some friends and I began planning a party for my birthday (which fell on the day following).
We arranged all the details— what to do, where to go for dinner, our after-meal plans. Finally, when all was settled, I sank back into the seat and tried to read my book. But strangely, all the planning left me with a vague sense of unease, something unsettling that I couldn’t quite pin down. I thought to myself, “What’s wrong with you? After all, tomorrow is your birthday.”
Like tumblers in a combination lock, pieces of a puzzling distraction fell into place. January 22, 1973, marked the day that abortion became legal throughout the United States. January 23, 1973, was my birthday. As I merrily planned a party in my own honor, millions of young men and women—my contemporaries—were dead, never to have even one birthday. Only 24 hours separated my birth from the birth of Roe v. Wade. It could have been me.
My mind returned to snatches of conversations I’d had with my mother—comments that seemed trivial until now. My mother endured many complications with each of her pregnancies. She had suffered, by her count, at least three miscarriages, and there may have been more. I began to fashion a fictional, although plausible, conversation between her and her doctor. “Margaret, why put yourself through this?” “You know, any more blood loss could kill you…” Each statement, imagined as real, left me cold.
When I returned to the dorm, I immediately called my sister Teresa. Could my imaginings have any truth to them? After I breathlessly explained my realization and my fears, she responded, “Oh, no. She would never have aborted you.” I instinctively knew this, but it was good to hear nonetheless. If not for my mother’s love, her willingness to sacrifice her life’s blood, I would have been a statistic.
When I became a Catholic, I accepted the Church’s teaching on abortion and other life issues somewhat academically. I affirmed their truth without zeal or enthusiasm. But once the cost of abortion is thrust in your face—once you are confronted with the vile reality of it—you can no longer remain emotionally distant. Just as I’d come to realize the precious gifts of grace that Christ pours out in each of us, so too did I appreciate the gift inherent to our being created by God—the unrepeatable value of the human person.
People remember in exquisite detail where they were on fateful days in history. But the lessons are too often learned much later. I hope to see a day when the law of our land protects the child in the womb, though there will doubtless be many minds and hearts yet to see what should have been plain all along. May they learn as I did on that chilly January day—may we all learn to see the truth in all its horror and wonder. And when it happens, be prepared—for you will have glimpsed what eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor heart conceived, but what rests in the plan of God from the beginning of time.