Getting the Words Right: Pro-Life Group Sees Recipe for Success

American Life League Founder: "If I Weren't Optimistic I'd Be Stupid"

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, JULY 28, 2011 (Zenit.org).- For the American Life League, the largest Catholic pro-life education organization in the United States, the right use of language is a key factor in winning the battle to protect human life and uphold human dignity.

By making others more aware of the importance of a precise choice of words, the League believes, it's possible to turn everyday conversations into opportunities to subtly convey the pro-life message -- perhaps the most important one being that pre-born babies are people too.

It's a common mistake to fall into the habit of depersonalizing the unborn child by saying "When is it due?" or "It has its own unique set of DNA" -- words that imply the baby is less than human. But another of the league's language concerns is somewhat surprising: that even the seemingly acceptable phrase "human life begins at conception" is inadequate, at least in the United States.

This is because the word "conception" plays into the hands of American pro-abortion organizations due to an action taken by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In 1965, the organization changed the definition of conception so that instead of referring to the process of "fertilization," it referred to "implantation" -- a later process by which the human embryo implants in his or her mother's uterus.

The change meant the college and its affiliated doctors could erroneously assure the public that birth control doesn't kill unborn children because, by this redefinition, pregnancy doesn't begin until implantation. "Now our laws have been thus influenced, so any time conception is used in a pro-life law, what the pro-lifer intends by that word is not its actual interpretation," the league says on its Web site. "Conception is no longer an effective word for us."

In Rome to discuss this point with Vatican officials was the founding president of the American Life League, Judie Brown. "In America, conception is defined as implantation, so when the Church makes a statement -- 'Dignitatis Personae' being the most recent example -- our enemies turn around and say even the Church doesn't believe there's life before implantation," Brown explained. But she insisted her goal wasn't to change the word conception, rather to make clear to Church officials that when the word conception is used, it must be shown to mean the "biological beginnings of a person." Vatican officials have sympathy with her view and are aware that, with human cloning possibly just around the corner, the issue must be addressed urgently.

Brown explained that this and other battles regarding "the language of personhood" are part of a campaign against organizations such as Planned Parenthood, an American abortion provider, which she would like to see stripped of government funding. "It's the root of the tree that the devil has planted," she said, "so if we cut off the root, we're making great progress getting rid of the problems they've caused over the last several years."

Founded in 1979, the American Life League is a proudly apolitical lay organization and therefore unafraid to criticize Republicans or Democrats if they're not truly pro-life. After 32 years leading many battles to protect some of society's most vulnerable, Brown is unsurprisingly doughty, forthright and fearless. When, for example, I raised accusations from some quarters that perceive the pro-life movement as uncharitable and divisive, she was quick to give a stern and convincing riposte.

"Now wait a minute," she said, "that is a media created perception. There is no culture of death organization that is involved in helping mothers and their newborn babies to the extent that the pro-life movement is. No one reaches out more to special needs children than pro-lifers and certainly there's no pro abortion organization that's willing to pick up the pieces after abortion when all the suffering starts, because they deny there is suffering."

She also rejected accusations that pro-life organizations have the wrong "tone." "What the critics don't like is truth," she argued. "If you put truth in the middle of an ice cream sundae, they still think it's going to taste bad. They don't like the truth, they love lies. The father of lies has control of these people -- I hate to say this."

Brown noted that pro-life campaigners are often labelled fanatics because they are unafraid to call abortion murder, even though Blessed Pope John Paul II also described the killing of unborn children as such. "It's because we speak the truth we're considered inhumane, cruel, unjust, zealots," she said. "I've been called every name in the book, some I can't even repeat to you because I'm a lady -- but it's because they don't like the truth."

Like many leading and influential pro-life campaigners, true compassion is at the heart of Brown's work, and she endeavors to distinguish between the sin and the sinner. "One of the challenges about being pro-life is that you have to do what John Paul II preached so well -- divide the actual act of sin from the person doing it," she explained. "Because if you don't love that person in the truth, the sin isn't going to go away. You must love the sinner, hate the sin. This is exactly correct and it should be universal among pro-lifers."

Since its founding, the American Life League has sought to build a society that respects and protects individual innocent human beings from creation to natural death, and to do so "without compromise, without exception, without apology." Its distinguishing trait, the league says, is an "absolute commitment to the sacredness of every innocent human being's life."

And together with the work of other pro-life groups and the Church herself, its work appears to be bearing fruit, particularly when it comes to protecting the lives of unborn children. Brown sees a major shift taking place in this area, particularly in the young, within the United States. "We have more young people today in the pro-life movement than ever before," she said. "But there's also a voracious appetite among members of Congress to get something done."

For this and other reasons, Brown -- a grandmother of 11 children -- said she was "terribly optimistic" about the future. "I go to the March for Life and I see 90% under the age of 30. If I weren't optimistic I'd be stupid. It may wait until our grandchildren catch on, but I do believe the culture of life will be restored in our country because I believe our country will go either totally to the devil or it won't, but people have to make that decision." She also sees the strong culture of death positions of the Obama administration as spurring dynamic resistance. "If you can't get Barack Obama to get the forces to mobilize in a positive way, then there's nobody next to the devil himself who will do it," she said.

She said the League is determined to "start at square one" because "there's so much misinformation being spread to people." One consequence of this is that the organization has developed a Catholic high school curriculum based on the culture of life -- a unique curriculum as its components can be used in any curriculum anywhere in the country. "It is is an aid to getting back to what it means to respect the dignity of the human person, in all subjects -- science, art, whatever you teach, we've got a component for you," she explained.

But what she is most concerned about is that all Catholics "stand up and be Catholic even when it's uncomfortable, even when it causes family or work problems." They have to take a stand, she stressed, "because they're slowly becoming silent." Brown cited as an example the Obama administration's removal of conscience protection from nurses who are now required by law to give the "morning-after pill" to rape victims.

"That's wrong. Why did it happen? Silence," Brown remarked.

As well as pray, Catholics must "speak out and defend the truth," she declared, adding that without prayer, "anything we do is a waste of time."

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org.