Deirdre McQuade, 37, the newly appointed director of planning and information at the bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, has seen a career already marked by study, activism and ecumenical dialogue.
The Parsippany, New Jersey, native co-founded Students for Life at Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges, and went on to earn master's degrees in philosophy and divinity at the University of Notre Dame.
She counseled for four years at a pregnancy care center in South Bend, Indiana, and then worked for Bishop John D'Arcy in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend as director of pastoral research and outreach.
McQuade was also national program director at the Washington, D.C.-based Feminists for Life, and most recently worked as a grant program analyst at the Office of Research on Women's Health at the National Institutes of Health. She shared with ZENIT her ideas about her new post.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge in the struggles between the culture of life and the culture of death?
McQuade: Describing himself as the good shepherd, Jesus said, "The thief comes in the night to maim, steal, and destroy, but I came that they might have life and have it abundantly."
Proclaiming the Gospel of abundant life is a great calling today. Society urgently needs clarity on life matters. Too much is at stake -- thousands aborted daily in America alone; the walking wounded suffering after abortion; the exploitation of embryos and fetal tissue; the inexcusable neglect of the elderly, disabled and dying.
All of these reveal errors stemming from a bad root: the idolatrous worship of autonomy; the wedge between law and morality; and the slippery slope that values life merely in terms of productivity. Word games define away personhood, and so threaten our most vulnerable neighbors. Radical autonomy has its price. It is, ultimately, a lonely, isolating, and even destructive existence.
Signs of the culture of death surround us, but because Christ pledged to be with us "to the end of the age" I am also convinced there is hope if we remain grounded in prayer and the sacramental life of the Church.
Q: What do you see as key difficulties in dealing in the media with complicated issues such as embryonic stem cell research, genetic manipulation and euthanasia?
McQuade: The mass media does not allow much time to develop a subtle position or explain the implications of a teaching. The challenge is to provide clear responses that are also substantive.
Catholic communicators have the duty to help the media be aware of their ethical lenses, and to clarify our own. The prevalent, if unexamined, ethical philosophy shaping public debate on these matters is utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number.
When it comes to cutting-edge medical research and technologies, its corollary -- the technological imperative -- comes into play, as well: "If we can do it, we should."
This summer, I was struck by a quotation by Rene Dubos displayed publicly at the National Institutes of Health: "In science as in other human activities, the speed of progress is less important than its direction."
When the human person is held in higher esteem than unqualified progress, then the dignity of life becomes the rate-determining factor. This quotation, properly understood, would actually question the ethos of labs throughout the country. In the media, any inquiry that challenges the technological imperative is often portrayed as anti-science and a step backward.
Medical researchers and reporters serve as modern-day priests, mediating the truth about health and life to the public. When they conduct their research with dignity, it is a great service to the common good. When they fail to do so -- as in illicit work with embryonic stem cells -- the healing arts suffer and many are misled.
Q: Where do you see the abortion issue heading?
McQuade: Public support of abortion on demand is declining. In one study, women placed abortion rights at the bottom of their list of priorities. Hundreds of thousands of young adults who have never known a day without legal abortion are standing up in the service of human life.
This is not surprising, as we are living with the wounds of 32 years of legalized abortion. Over 40 million infants, children, teens, and young adults are not among us who should be. They would have been our siblings, classmates, friends, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, great-grandchildren -- or even our uncles and aunts!
There is a clearer sense now that did not exist in the 1970s and '80s -- abortion is not just between a woman and her doctor.
Moreover, the Roe v. Wade decision itself is receiving overdue criticism for its overreaching scope and faulty constitutional jurisprudence.
Even legal commentators who support legal abortion have said that Roe is not good constitutional law. A former clerk to Justice Blackmun, Edward Lazarus, calls it "indefensible … one of the most intellectually suspect constitutional decisions of the modern era."
So the Church is now in a season of opportunity to make a critical difference. We need to build upon this momentum and communicate the pro-life message proactively.
Q: Are abstinence programs working?
McQuade: Chastity outreach programs help to serve the culture of life in a few ways.
In addition to helping to avoid untimely pregnancies, they develop character, the strength to make good decisions both now and in the future. They help young adults know the difference between a good relationship and an exploitative one, and how to build a solid foundation based on trust, not just hormones.
Q: Do you foresee any special priorities for the Church, given the rising secularism and antagonism toward religion in the United States?
McQuade: Just as Christ encountered the woman at the well -- with truth, boldness and compassion -- so must we encounter those enmeshed in the culture of death. Without accusation, we should reveal the shallow inadequacy of that "well" and offer something much deeper and profound, more refreshing and life-giving.
We want to build a world where human life is always loved and defended, and every form of violence banished … a world in which abortion is the furthest thing from everyone's mind.
Certainly women deserve much better than abortion and its false promise of freedom. What will it take to meet the needs of women and their families? There is plenty of pro-life work for everyone to do, in every vocation and walk of life. In short, our work is cut out for us.
Q: How do the bishops see their role right now, especially in light of the difficulties in the past few years?
McQuade: The U.S. bishops continue to teach and shepherd the Catholic "flock," speaking out strongly on life issues. The charter document that guides all our efforts is their pastoral plan for pro-life activities, "A Campaign in Support of Life":
"[We] renew our call for individual Catholics and the many institutions and organizations of the Church to unite in an unprecedented effort to restore respect and legal protection for every human life -- to be what the Holy Father asks us to be: a people of life and a people for life. […] It is our hope and expectation that in focusing on the need to respect and protect the lives of the innocent unborn and those who are disabled, ill, or dying, we will help to deepen respect for the life of every human being."
A recent initiative of the Pro-Life Secretariat is the Second Look Project, which challenges the public to reconsider the abortion issue, asking: "Abortion. Have we gone too far?"
Our Web site has a page devoted to Roe vs. Wade and its legal implications; and the series of "Roe Reality Checks" debunk over a dozen myths about that watershed case.
Q: What do you bring to the bishops' conference from your experience at women-centered organizations and institutions?
McQuade: In "Evangelium Vitae," John Paul II called for women "to promote a 'new feminism' which rejects the temptation of imitating models of 'male domination,' in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation."
Since college, I have focused on life issues from the perspective of women. A few of us started a pro-life group at Bryn Mawr and Haverford, and dozens of students came out of the woodwork when they discovered they were not alone. Together we debunked the myth that being pro-woman is tantamount to being pro-abortion.
Counseling at a pregnancy help center, I then developed a deeper understanding for the challenges women face in choosing life for their children.
At Feminists for Life of America, we affirmed the true dignity of women from a nonsectarian, civil rights foundation, speaking out against abortion from the best resources of the feminist movement. Finally, at the Office of Research on Women's Health, I became more aware of women's health concerns at all stages of life.
I have dedicated my work to Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas and of the unborn. Through her intercession, may all the unborn find protection; all mothers find consolation; and all pro-life workers, joyful endurance.
I also pray that her gentle love will draw abortionists and the most entrenched abortion advocates to the heart of her Son, so that they might have the courage to repent, humbly receive the grace of forgiveness, and promote the cause of life instead, "for nothing is impossible with God."