By Father Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life
and Dr. Alveda King, director of African-American Outreach
Americans are uncomfortable when faced with the reality that abortion is the greatest violation of civil rights in our time. We saw this discomfort over the summer, as the first of our Pro-Life Freedom Rides for the Unborn arrived in Atlanta. We were not welcome there.
The inaugural ride traveled from Birmingham to Atlanta to proclaim, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King did more than 40 years ago, “The next thing we must be concerned about if we are to have peace on Earth … is the non-violent affirmation of the sacredness of human life.” We had come to say that abortion is the greatest violation of civil rights since slavery. But officials of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change and the National Park Service didn’t want this message proclaimed from their property, and the small but noisy protesters gathered across from Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King was ordained in 1960 and eulogized after his assassination just eight years later, didn’t want us in their city. Their own message was incongruous. “Who loves our babies,” they chanted. “We love our babies.” And yet there they were, out in the stifling heat, making sure no one tried to take away their right to kill those babies.
The Freedom Riders of 1961 were not welcome in the cities they rode to, and they faced much harsher consequences as they tested new desegregation laws. Residents of those Southern cities of not so long ago didn’t want anyone to take away their right to discriminate against a people they judged inferior.
Both civil rights movements – for the rights of minorities and for the lives of the unborn – are characterized by their opponents as ways to restrict freedom, to take away liberties, but that view is beyond myopic. The Freedom Riders, and those who marched, and those who sacrificed their lives to make sure blacks could register to vote, were fighting to extend rights. The pro-life movement is fighting that same fight. We want to extend rights to those who currently have none. A baby’s right to life trumps a woman’s right to choose every time.
The civil rights movement prevailed by making people face the truth. Not everybody in the United States was a racist, but racism was enforced by law in some parts of the country and tolerated in others. Americans, who perhaps didn’t discriminate against blacks themselves, somehow felt that while racism was wrong, it didn’t really affect their lives. They didn’t need to care that much about people they thought were different, so they didn’t get involved.
They didn’t care, that is, until they saw innocent African-Americans attacked with police dogs and fire hoses. They didn’t change their minds until they saw the faces of those whose crime was to want to eat lunch or ride a bus with others. And they didn’t get involved until the truth of racism’s inhumanity was unavoidable.
Eventually, when they opened their newspapers or turned on the 6 o’clock news, Americans began to see and comprehend what was happening on their streets.
America changed because Americans were touched in their hearts – hearts that the Bible tells us are inscribed with God’s law. We can try to deny our consciences, indoctrinate or medicate our minds so that we can’t or won’t think, but a sense of right and wrong has been given to each and every one of us. It is that very moral awareness that changed America’s culture on racism.
We believe it is that same moral awareness that can change any culture on abortion. When we met at a right-to-life conference in New York in 1999, we had arrived, from opposite directions, at the realization that the unborn today are the most segregated, the most disenfranchised, the most oppressed people on Earth. Both of us leaned heavily on the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., who made it clear again and again that the fight for justice excludes no one.
“It all boils down to this,” he wrote. “That all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
As we articulated the aims of the pro-life movement – to use non-violent means to fight for equality and justice -- many civil rights leaders agreed with us, and ultimately got on board our Freedom Bus, both literally and figuratively. They saw, as we see, that the civil rights movement and the pro-life movement have the same heart and soul: A longing for equal justice for everyone, based on the inherent dignity of every human being. The movement transcends religious denominations, ethnic boundaries and political affiliations. Justice is justice, and life is life.
We have long believed that America will not end abortion until America sees abortion, which is why we support showing graphic images and videos of exactly what people are talking about when they advocate for “choice.” These images are controversial and disturbing. And they show the truth.
But now it is also possible to see the unborn in the womb as they thrive and grow and live. Thanks to ultrasound and embryoscopy – the six o’clock news of the 21st century -- we have a clear window into the womb, making it impossible to cling to the lie that life begins at birth, or that those limbs, those eyes, that beating heart belong to anything less human than you or I. The abortion industry and its supporters fight so hard against ultrasound laws because they know that mothers and fathers who see their babies on that screen will know they are not simply, in the disingenuous language of choice, “terminating a pregnancy.”
The civil rights and pro-life movements share another common concern: The targeting of black babies. Thanks to innovative campaigns like the “Black children are an endangered species” billboard initiative in Georgia and the film “Maafa 21,” which underscores the racist origins of Planned Parenthood, African-Americans are coming to a greater awareness of the toll abortion takes on their community. Two-thirds of African-American pregnancies end with abortion. According to U.S. Census figures released in 2006, the black fertility rate is so low that this generation will not even replace itself. Black pro-life leaders from coast to coast have been spreading this alarming message for several years, that black babies are the targets of nothing less than genocide.
According to the abortion industry’s own statistics, a black woman in the United States is five times more likely than a white woman to have an abortion. Since the Roe v. Wade decision that enshrined abortion on demand as a constitutional right, 14 million black babies have been aborted. Given that the African-American population is now roughly 37 million, it’s worse than if a plague swept through the black community and took every fourth person.
Our country was founded on the teaching that all people are equal, and that the weak should be protected from the strong. This is what the civil rights movement sought. This is what the pro-life movement seeks... We are simply calling for the protection of all human beings, including those who cannot yet speak for themselves. We want the unborn to have the rights the rest of us take for granted.
In 1973, seven out of nine U.S. Supreme Court justices declared that children in the womb are not persons under the Constitution. But a court’s decision, even as august a body as the Supreme Court, does not determine reality. Reality is determined at the moment of conception, when a separate, unique human being has been created. “Strangely enough,” Martin Luther King wrote, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
That’s the core of the civil rights movement of the 21st century. We all need the chance to be who we ought to be. That’s the message we spread last month on our second Freedom Ride, from Knoxville to Chattanooga, Tenn. It’s the message we will continue to spread.