Mary Meehan ’63 addressed the Trinity community assembled in O’Connor Auditorium on October 1, 2009.Her remarks advocate a consistent approach to life issues including abortion, war and the death penalty.
Following the address, she led a lively discussion with students about their life goals.
Building a Consistent Culture of Life:
What You Can Do
Remarks by Mary Meehan, Trinity ’63, at Trinity Washington University
Washington, D.C., October 1, 2009*
President McGuire, Sister Margaret, members of the faculty, and students:
Thank you very much, President McGuire, for that very kind introduction.
It is good to be back at Trinity, and I am especially glad to speak here in O’Connor Auditorium. In the early 1960s, I arranged a talk here by a speaker from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee on the civil rights sit-ins in the South. There had been short notice of his availability; so I hadn’t had much time to publicize the event, and the audience was not as large as it might have been. After his talk, student government president Cathy White passed her mortarboard for contributions. We collected perhaps $40-60 for the speaker; but that was real money in the early 1960s. It probably kept him going for two or three weeks as he visited other campuses.
I must ‘fess up to the students that I am on a recruiting mission. Those of us who have been in the struggles for life for many years really need reinforcement. We are not about to quit, but we don’t have the same energy we used to have. We have some grey hairs, substantial wear-and- tear, and some scars. We need your energy, your idealism, and your courage. Your fresh ideas, your can-do spirit, and–not least–your computer skills. There’s a great need for every talent you may have: organizing, art, photography, film, research and writing, lobbying and politics, business skills, or talent in teaching, law, or medicine. There is much you can do through volunteer work or internships, now and later. And I hope some of you will consider devoting your entire careers to the defense of life.
I will give you a brief background on my own experience with life-and-death issues to show why many of us from the 1960s generation and later have a deep commitment to the consistent ethic of life. I was born during World War II and grew up under the shadow of atomic weapons. My family was very patriotic; on one side, we had soldiers going back to the American Revolution and in a number of wars since then, including the Second World War. After the U.S. triumph in that war, and in view of terrible reports of life under communism, it was easy to see the United States as nearly always on the right side. Popular culture certainly supported that view.
But even in childhood, I had concerns about historic U.S. injustice to Native Americans. In high school, I read a fascinating biography of the great Senator Robert La Follette, Sr., the progressive Republican who was noted, among other things, for his resistance to U.S. entry into World War I. That book and other reading convinced me that he was right; that we never should have entered that war; and that, like so many wars, it led to more war. Also in high school, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, an account of the effects of our dropping the atomic bomb on Japanese civilians at the end of World War II. It gave me a lifelong horror of atomic weapons.
I majored in history here at Trinity, and especially enjoyed Sister Joan Bland’s American history course. I also learned much from courses in Asian and Latin American history, but was appalled by the many U.S. interventions in Latin America. I felt then, and still do, that we had no right to intervene there.
There are many valuable lessons in history, but it’s easy to get lost in the sheer welter of facts, the drama of history, and the trappings of power. I wish that a history teacher here or in high school had said at the start that we should study history with Lord Acton’s wisdom: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”(1) That we should understand that history is largely about how people with power stomp all over those who don’t have it. And that most of the real heroes in history aren’t presidents, kings, or emperors, but those who stand up for little people–and show the powerless how to stand up for themselves.
I would add to Lord Acton’s wisdom that of the late Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, who said that “ideologies do not bleed/they only blood the world.”(2) I believe that examples of this include extreme nationalism, colonialism, and eugenics–that is, the effort to breed a “better” human race.
I worked for Senator McCarthy in his 1968 presidential campaign against the Vietnam War and later did research and other work for him after his retirement from the Senate. I also did other antiwar political work and took part in antiwar protests. But in the early 1970s, I was puzzled why so many antiwar liberals were supporting efforts to legalize abortion–another kind of violence and the taking of human life, and one aimed at children. An antiwar friend invited me to join him on the 1978 March for Life, the annual march here in Washington that protests the Roe v. Wade decision. I later met others who were anti-all types of violence, including the death penalty and euthanasia. We talked about what was then called the “consistency thing”–the idea that if you oppose one type of violence, you also should oppose the others.
The consistency ethic is not same as pacifism–but close. Pacifists and those who hold a strict version of the just-war theory often come down in the same place in opposing a specific war. Consistency ethic supporters include pacifists and those who just have a strong default position for nonviolence. We place much emphasis on alternatives to violence. We realize that it is not enough to say what’s wrong with the world; we must also offer positive and workable alternatives. We understand the temptation to violence, but also understand its terrible effects on the human body and the human spirit. And its devastating effects on those who commit violence, such as combat soldiers and abortion-clinic workers. And we understand that all other rights and liberties depend on the right to life. When you take someone’s life, you wipe out, in one fell swoop, all of their other rights.
On the positive side, we are inspired by the power of nonviolent action–from vigorous exercise of First-Amendment rights to the nonviolent direct action led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; by César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and their colleagues in the United Farm Workers; by 1960s & 1970s peace activists; by later pro-life activists; and by the Solidarity activists of Poland and others who were involved in the peaceful overthrow of the Soviet Union’s empire. They are practical models for us, as well as sources of hope.
I would like to suggest some career possibilities for your consideration, but first I have a few pieces of advice for anyone who is considering work in defense of life:
1) Borrowing from Matthew Arnold, you must see life steadily and see it whole.(3) You must understand the great evil we are all capable of, especially if we have too much power, but also the good we can do, especially on the one-to-one level. You have to understand the real tragedies in life and Murphy’s Law–but keep thinking of ways to avoid the tragedies and to outfox Murphy.
2) Be wary of utopias, whether of the left or the right. They usually don’t work as advertised, and overreaching for them often leads to great violence and suffering. I believe that we will never have a perfect political or social system. Sometimes, as the British say, we just have to muddle through. Let’s just work for a semi-utopia: a society and a world in which no one assaults or kills anyone else. What a blissful state that would be! And what great energy and optimism it would release to solve our other problems!
3) Be wary of the partisan approach to life-and-death issues. The current partisan alignments on these issues makes no sense whatever. Many years ago Julianne Loesch Wiley, a founder of the consistency movement, viewed the congressional candidates of the day and said most looked like “a cross between Francis of Assisi and Attila the Hun.”(4) That is still true of most today. But conservatives and Republicans should not be pro-war and pro-death penalty. The conservative preference for small government, and the deep conservative awareness of the corruptions of power, should lead to positions on the otherr side. Congressman Ron Paul, Prof. Andrew Bacevich, and others are now making a strong conservative case against war and empire. Conservatives such as Richard Viguerie and R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., have done the same with the death penalty. Strength to their arm!
In a similar way, liberals and Democrats shouldn’t support abortion and euthanasia; rather, they should see both as attacks on those who have little or no power in our society. The Democrats for Life, Feminists for Life, the great civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, and others are making this case. I urge you to support them as they speak truth to power.
4) There is sometimes a great temptation, as we try to save the world, to neglect friends or even family members who also need saving–from serious illness, addiction problems, or perhaps financial disaster. “Family first” is a good basic rule, then friends and neighbors. And if you take time to help with those needs right at hand, you nearly always learn things that will help you deal with the larger problems of saving the world.
But what, specifically, can you do to help build a consistent culture of life while here at Trinity and later in your vocation or career?
While here, you can study the life-and-death issues in your courses and perhaps do research and writing that will help both you and others understand them more deeply. In studying history, you might take one of the great movements for social change of the 1800s–the abolitionist movement, the early feminist movement, the early anti-death penalty movement–and compare it with a similar movement today, asking what today’s movement can learn from the past. In philosophy, you might write a paper on respect for the person and how that affects the life-and-death issues and the way they should be debated. In economics, you might study the military-industrial-academic complex and its effects on our foreign policy. In nursing or pre-med studies, you could write a paper on eugenics and its enormous influence on medicine–especially on genetics. In psychology, you could study ways in which psychology is often misused to manipulate people–in politics generally and to support violence in particular. In sociology and political science, you might study C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff on the power elite: how they get power & how they use it. That knowledge is extremely helpful in any effort to obtain social change and to resist violence.
As an aside, I want to note the enormous resources for research in this great city–not only in the university libraries, but the Library of Congress and the National Archives.
I would urge you to go to antiwar marches and to the March for Life here in Washington. Perhaps first, especially if you are undecided on these issues, you might go as an observer, interviewing people and (again!) writing a paper. Later, I hope, you will go as a marcher. You probably won’t agree with all the rhetoric you hear; sometimes speakers get too shrill or ideological. But you can make your own sign, bring your own message, sing your own song, perhaps start your own group here on campus. I would love to see Trinity signs and banners at those marches.
I would urge you to consider volunteer work or an internship with one of the groups listed on the green sheet [a "For More Information" handout] or with similar groups. You can learn a great deal that way and help the cause of nonviolence at the same time. I especially recommend Feminists for Life, which is doing much to make campuses more friendly to pregnant and parenting students. This can involve anything from diaper-changing stations on campus, to maternity coverage in student insurance, to co-op daycare on campus. I was glad to see on the Trinity website a reference to the mothers’ support group here. Perhaps Trinity can use other practical ideas from Feminists for Life.
Career Choices: First, I’ll mention the most alluring–and in some ways the most difficult–politics. For those committed to the consistency ethic, there is still the problem of Francis of Assisi v. Attila the Hun. It is hard to find consistency candidates and officeholders, though there are some in Congress. Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, a very senior Democrat in the House, is one; Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan is another. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey is a major pro-life leader in the House, and has been through many difficult years. He doesn’t go the whole way with the consistency ethic; but he is opposed to the death penalty as well as abortion and euthanasia.
I hope very much that some of you might swell the ranks of consistent candidates and officeholders in coming years.
There is also the issue of harmony between one’s personal position on life-and-death issues and one’s public position. I have been greatly disappointed by two famous Trinity alums on this score: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi & Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. Both are very talented women. It’s my understanding that both say they are personally opposed to abortion. Yet, politically, they have supported it down the line. What a difference they could make if, instead, they supported the Feminists for Life position! That was also the position of early American feminists such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul.
Speaker Pelosi also says she is against torture. We will not know the full story on this for many years. But it’s my impression, based on news reports, that there was a time during the recent Bush Administration when she might have been able to stop the torture had she spoken out strongly, either in private conversations with the President and other high officials or by going public–and that she did not.
Many other politicians also take contradictory personal and public positions on life-and-death issues, including the death penalty and war. On the death penalty, some say that “I’m personally opposed to it. But if you elect me governor, I will enforce the law” (neglecting to mention a governor’s clemency power). Or “if you select me as prosecutor, I will go for the death penalty.” But what does a personal position mean in this case? What good is it? Does it mean anything at all? Having one personal position and another, contradictory public position splits the mind from the heart and action from conviction. Especially on matters of life and death, our personal and public positions should be the same. We should live out in our lives those many-splendored words of “honor” & “integrity.” This is not easy in politics, but it can be done. I have seen it done. It’s what our politics desperately needs today.
Politics, of course, is not the only career that poses questions of conscience. Almost any work does, sooner or later. The best rule is to keep enough distance from any job so that you can walk away from it on a matter of conscience. Sometimes that willingness to walk away may lead to a reconsideration of policy. Especially, of course, if you happen to be the Secretary of State or Attorney General. But even at lower levels, it may prompt reconsideration of policy.
Lobbying, including citizen lobbying, also has great importance. But be aware of many politicians’ capacity to be smile and be polite, to absorb protest, and then to ignore it altogether. Sometimes you must keep going back and pressing them, or even recruit candidates to run against them, or run yourself.
Counseling: Especially if you are a psychology major, you may be considering a career of counseling. The more I have seen of life, the more I have come to believe that good counselors are worth their weight in gold. Counselors can do much to prevent domestic and other violence and to help people in the pursuit of happiness. If you are considering a career in counseling, I would say: Go for it!
Nursing and Medicine: A pro-life and anti-eugenics witness is extremely important within the healthcare professions. Many, many lives are at stake there. There is a sort of warfare now between the healing, do-no-harm tradition and the destructive influence of eugenics. Again, eugenics is the effort to breed a “better” human race and–to put it bluntly–to do away with people who have disabilities (through prenatal testing and eugenic abortion and also through euthanasia). On the positive side, there have been enormous strides in surgery, therapy, and technical aids to deal with disability. Some of you, I hope, will be part of more such breakthroughs. And some might help implement the wonderful “Eden Alternative” that transforms nursing homes into real homes. I hope that some, too, will be involved with pregnancy care centers such as the Centro Tepeyac in Silver Spring, which offers counseling in both Spanish and English. Several Trinity students have been volunteers there, and Mary Hamm of Centro Tepeyac is with us today. Perhaps some of you would like to talk with her about her center’s work. Other centers are affiliated with Birthright, Heartbeat International, or other networks. They do enormous good in helping women and couples who need moral support and practical aid in pregnancy.
Journalism: There is a great need for reporters, radio & television broadcasters, and writers who can do serious, in-depth work on life-and-death issues. There are some great role models from recent history: George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Dorothy Day, Dr. King, Nat Hentoff, Justin Raimondo, Helen Prejean. (Pretty good company!) Besides pointing out what is wrong and where the threats to life come from, you can report on positive, life-giving alternatives.
International Affairs: There is a need for scholars to continue Gene Sharp’s extremely important research and writing on strategic nonviolent action as an alternative to war. Dr. Sharp, who is now in his eighties, has spent his entire academic life on this subject and has had a real impact. He is a great role model for scholars. We also need more scholars such as Chalmers Johnson, Andrew Bacevich, Frida Berrigan, and other critics of U.S. foreign and military policy.
A word about careers in intelligence and about the Intelligence Center here at Trinity. I was, frankly, quite upset when I learned about the Center here because of specific concerns about the CIA. (I am not making any personal attack on those who work for, or have worked for, the Agency. It happens that several of my friends have. I think they did so for patriotic reasons.) My concerns are about CIA involvement in torture and its entire covert action operation. I believe it was a terrible mistake, both ethically and politically, to give the CIA authority for covert action. Presidents have used it as their private army, and there has been enormous “blowback” or retaliation for many of its secret operations abroad.
Certainly the CIA and other intelligence agencies should be discussed and studied at a university. Students should hear from both supporters and critics. But should a university accept funding from the intelligence community itself, so that students may study it with an eye toward joining it? I believe it should not. What the CIA and many other government agencies really need are outside critics who will lead efforts to reduce their power and to end entirely their abuses of power. I hope many of you will be among those critics.
The role that I suggest to you can be a lonely one in this city that worships power and success. It is less lonely, though, out in the countryside, where so many Americans now deeply distrust the government and are convinced that we are on the wrong track. In any case, the outsider role has its own rewards. You will meet and work with many fine people. You will use your education and every talent you have to the utmost. At the end of the day, you may not be rich and famous, but may know that you have helped saved many lives. And that, by defending our right to life, you also have helped secure our rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. You could not have a finer career.
1. John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (Lord Acton), to Bishop Mandell Creighton, 5 April 1887.
2. Eugene McCarthy, “Ares,” in his Other Things and the Aardvark (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970), 68.
3. In “To a Friend,” Arnold remarked that Sophocles “saw life steadily and saw it whole.” See C. B. Tinker and H. F. Lowry, ed., The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), 2.
4. Juli Loesch, “Politics Is War,” Erie Christian Witness, July-Aug. 1979, 3.
Albert Einstein Institution
Research & publications on “strategic nonviolent action” in which citizens oppose invasion or tyranny by resistance that’s carefully planned in advance.
Website offers reporting & commentary from U.S. and overseas media; libertarian-inspired, it appeals to non-interventionists on both left and right
A network of groups and individuals committed to consistency ethic; opposes all homicide, as well as racism & poverty; many of its members are longtime peace/pro-life activists
Death Penalty Information Center
In-depth information on the death penalty from an abolitionist perspective; website offers reports on innocence and the death penalty, “Killing for Votes,” and much more
Democrats for Life of America
Promotes pro-life candidates and policies within the Democratic Party; works to reduce economic and other pressures that push people toward abortion; see website for state chapters
Helps nursing homes become more like real homes & more patient-centered; encourages presence of children, pets, plants, and gardens in the homes
Feminists for Life of America
Supports equal rights for women, including unborn women; runs a College Outreach Program, encouraging practical aid for pregnant & parenting college students
Website covers all major life-or-death issues in research articles & commentary; includes sections on the “Art of Persuasion” and “Recapturing the Joy of Life”
Pregnancy counseling (English & Spanish); maternity clothes & baby supplies; many referrals for aid; has home for pregnant women who are homeless or likely to become so; always welcomes volunteers!
Aids college students & working women who have unexpected pregnancies; can arrange temporary college or job transfers when privacy is a major concern; can also provide shelter and financial aid when needed