Bishop William Joensen’s remarks at Iowa March for Life 2024

Bishop William Joensen Iowa March for Life 24It is a blessing to be with you today, as we anticipate Monday’s second anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturning Roe v. Wade.  I stand with you as a native Iowan who respects the rule of law and reason’s capacity to discern truths about our human nature and identity, and as a Catholic Christian disciple of Jesus and pastor of souls in central and southwest Iowa.

As much as we heralded the Dobbs decision, we know how it has exposed an underlying attachment in our American culture to the option to procure an abortion under at least certain circumstances.  A legal sea change of this magnitude does not automatically correlate with changes in hearts, minds, and habitual attitudes.  The political pushback against Dobbs is conspicuous and disturbing.  We are a people—and I include myself in this claim—who are constantly in need of conversion in order to fully realize the implications of our God-given human dignity and the opportunities and obligations this dignity entails.  I refer not simply to the defense of human rights, but of the demands of social justice, the pursuit of the common good, and the impact not only on human society, but on a global ecology as well. 

The late Pope St. John Paul II observed,

“The acceptance of abortion in the popular mind, in behavior, and even in law itself is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake.. . We need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception. The prophet Isaiah convicts us: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness’ (Is. 5:20)” (Evangelium Vitae n. 58).

And his present successor Pope Francis reiterates:

“It must be stated with all force and clarity, even in our time, that “ ‘this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. . . . Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems’ ”(Evangelii Gaudium n. 213; all cited in Dignitas Infinita n. 47).

In calling things by their proper name, we must also dispel distortions or misrepresentations of our aims as ardent pro-life advocates.  One of the canards perpetrated by pro-choice rhetoric is that our concern (they would call it an “obsession”) is solely for nascent life in the womb, with disregard for mothers and children postpartum.  In fact, as many have noted in the wake of Dobbs, those states that have increased legal restrictions against abortion practices have likewise expanded the benefits and support tendered to young mothers and their children.  In Iowa, the passage last year of the MOMS bill—“More options for maternal support”—while facing initial challenges to establish programs in their fledgling stages, continues to gain traction among legislators and other parties in terms of the material support allocated for young families, whether with single or two parents.

The lynchpin for our awareness and advocacy is our sense of what is meant by the term ‘human dignity’, which should be a point of consensus among all people of good will, regardless of creed or personal circumstance.  Yet sadly, that is not the case, as we impose distinctions that negatively qualify and reduce the status of some individuals.  The ultimate, inherent, and inalienable value of each and every human being is something we must acknowledge and not attribute based on our own subjective preferences. 

“Dignity is intrinsic to the person: it is not conferred subsequently. . . it is prior to any recognition, and it cannot be lost.  All human beings possess this same intrinsic dignity, regardless of whether or not they can express it in a suitable manner” (Dignitas Infinita/DI n. 15).

“The only prerequisite for speaking about the dignity inherent in the person is their membership in the human species, whereby ‘the rights of the person are the rights of man’ (DI n. 24).  

When we champion human dignity, we are simultaneously witnessing to our sense of goodness and connections that exist among all beings in creation.  It’s ironic that some of the most strident voices calling for a “green revolution” that would slow global climate change and elevate our respect and care for the natural environment on its own terms not infrequently seem to esteem or even pit impersonal nature against human nature.  Yet a genuinely integral ecology would reconcile and foster collaboration on all sides.  Again, Pope Francis, in his message “On Care for Our Common Home”/Laudato ‘Si, maintains:

“Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decision is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself.  When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities—to offer just a few examples—it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected” (LS n. 117).

The Holy Father’s examples are striking, including his mention of human embryos, because this is an area where even among the pro-life community, we are not yet united spiritually, philosophically, or politically.  The recent Alabama Supreme Court decision regarding the status of cryopreserved embryos and the responses in various quarters, including here in Iowa, is disclosive.  

The Alabama case exposes again the many ethical and personal issues surrounding in vitro fertilization practices.  The heart-wrenching and holy desire of infertile couples to conceive is serviced by clinics competing in the marketplace based on posted success rates in helping these couples successfully “produce” a child.  As Aaron Kheriaty, MD, notes,

“Multiple cycles are frequently necessary to achieve pregnancy, and . . . because egg harvesting is an invasive and sometimes risky procedure, IVF cycles typically aim to create many embryos as possible—usually more than the couple intends to bring to birth.” 

It is not uncommon that in addition to the simple motive to become pregnant, couples are also understandably wary of implanting children with genetic abnormalities, and so pre-implantation screening prompts them and clinicians to discard these embryos.

The net result is that today, no one truly knows how many human embryos dwell in dark, cold storage tanks, though estimates for the U.S. range from 500,000 to millions.  While some propose allowing other couples to adopt these embryos, to implant them and bring them to term, the fact is that only a tiny minority of these embryos will see the light of day.

As a young priest, I was privileged to accompany several couples dealing with infertility as they bore this cross and attempted multiple medical interventions to discover the root cause; they usually pursued hormonal and other interventions that would assist them and allow them to conceive a child through conjugal relations.  We even formed a support group that met regularly, where they shared their experiences and practical wisdom gained, and prayed and socialized together.  Some couples became pregnant; others eventually decided to “get off the treadmill” of severe treatment side effects and high costs, and opted for adoption.  

From both a philosophical perspective and as a pastor and teacher of the faith, I believe that it is incumbent that the pro-life community “recognizes the legitimacy of the desire for a child and understands the suffering of couples with problems of fertility.  Such a desire, however, should not override the dignity of every human life to the point of absolute supremacy.  The desire for a child cannot justify the ‘production’ of offspring, just as the desire not to have a child cannot justify the abandonment of destruction of a children once he or she has been conceived.” 

When it comes to IVF and its consequences, “It needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved.”  Ultimately, as Dr. Kheriaty concludes, this injustice “should invite us to reevaluate the practice that created this insoluble quandary in the first place.”

Our heritage as Iowans reflects historical and political influences that continue to shape our foundational beliefs.  The “trois couleurs” of the Iowa flag signals the French legacy of the Louisiana Purchase, along with one of the main tributaries for our sense of human rights—preeminently, the right to life.  Even those who reject Christianity itself—such as the architects of the French Revolution—still owe a tremendous debt to Christianity, without which the motto, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”/Liberty, Equality, Fraternity– would never have materialized (Thomas Williams, The World as It Could Be, p. 44-45, citing Cardinal Luistiger, First Things, 76, 38-45).  

In this respect, I’m appreciative of the story of the old French rural parish priest, who had the words, “Verité, humilité, paternité” inscribed over the door of his rectory.  “Whenever someone asked why, the priest would reply, ‘Well, it’s all very simple, because the truth (verité) will set you free (liberté), humility will make you equal (egalité) and paternity will teach you that you are all brothers (fraternité), since you all have the same Father’ ” (Clara Lejeune-Gaymard, Life is a Blessing, p. 104). 

May our participation in today’s March for Life remind us and convert us to the truth that we are all beings of equal and ultimate dignity, children of God who have a rightful place in our State, our society, regardless of age, location, functionality or other circumstance.  Only when we recognize this truth we will be truly free, in law and in fact.   Thank you.