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Food for the Poor Godspy.com: Faith at the Edge


Marion Maendel | 02.21.08


Letting Bill Clinton Off Easy

The Helpers of God's Precious Infants praying at an abortion clinic

When I saw the popular YouTube clip of pro-life protestors from Franciscan University of Steubenville interrupting Bill Clinton’s speech at a campaign rally in their town this week, my first reaction wasn’t the satisfaction that was registered all over the Catholic blogosphere—at either their audacity or Clinton’s cherry-faced loss of aplomb. Instead I felt chagrin, tinged with sadness for a lost opportunity.

I’m sure the protestors were well-meaning. Given their university’s reputation for doctrinal orthodoxy (and here I’m assuming that the protestors in the video were, in fact, from the Steubenville pro-life group), I’m sure their activity was motivated by genuine horror at the silent violence of abortion, and a burning desire to let the world know that politically correct jargon won’t obscure for them the daily reality of that atrocity. Perhaps they did pray together before the speech—for Clinton, for their mission, for unborn children, and for the softening of hearts—as Bill Christensen pointed out in his post about the video.
Yet I think advocates of abortion, whether staunch or tentative, could take only one message from the protest. What they saw, I’m afraid, was exactly what I did: a convenient reinforcement of the pro-life stereotype: self-righteous, obtrusive and shrill, instead of rational, charitable and nuanced—an approach easy to dismiss. 

I winced when I watched the clip. Not only did Bill Clinton succeed in putting words in their mouths, when he charged them with wanting to criminalize women who have abortions, but the national media’s spin on the event was mostly in favor of Clinton and against the protestors.

Have we come no farther in our battle against abortion than poster-waving, with slogans that reflect merely a keen sense of the obvious? Not a few abortion proponents will readily acknowledge that “abortion kills children,” as the main sign shouted; scores of confessionals reveal that women who have abortions know instinctively that the procedure will destroy their baby. They acknowledge it, and they shrug, or they despair and proceed anyway.
That “anyway” should be at the crux of our pro-life effort; we must seek to provoke not more reaction but more reflection—a quickening not only of consciences—as critical as that is—but of hope-filled alternatives to abortion that imply generous sacrifices of our own. 
Emerson wrote that sometimes a scream is better than a thesis, and I’m sure there are many who believe that restraint is inappropriate in the face of sheer evil. I wonder, though, if there’s a middle ground we can find here between the timid and the brazen—a voice both inviting and prophetic as it advocates for life.

What if the clip’s viewers could hear, from the pro-life side, not raucous shouts, but a torrent of pointedly well-crafted questions for Clinton, questions that demonstrated careful reasoning, self-control, and inspiring conviction? What if, instead of overt disruption followed by smug, self-congratulatory applause from the pro-choice audience, they saw hundreds of pro-life students kneeling in prayer at the lecture hall? If signs needed to be waved, what about the pro-life movement’s more thought-provoking slogans: “Your mom chose life;” “Some choices are wrong,” “Abortion: one dead, one wounded.” 
Perhaps the praying students and the more thoughtful signs and posters were there; perhaps there were even better responses. I have only this video clip of the incident on which to base my perceptions… but so does the rest of the world.

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By Bill Christensen AT 02.22.08 02:23AM Not Rated

Bill Christensen

It may surprise folks a little—but I largely agree with Marion. In fact, I’ve been directly involved in getting groups of pro-life activists to change from aggressive and/or offensive messages to communications meant to “provoke reflection” and encourage “hope-filled alternatives” (just as Marion suggests). Sensitivity, empathy and solidarity with women is essential. And, yes, reinforcing stereotypes and raising walls may result from the behavior that appeared to be displayed by the students.

The point in my piece, however, was focused on the irony of the scene. I was an antiwar activist, and a participant in the largest single protest rally of the Viet Nam era. Clinton’s political will was forged in this same context—and it often got hairy out there. In fact, the behavior of the student protesters, the policy makers, and the police was frequently less than peaceful. (What? No peace at a peace march?)

Thankfully, college kids possess a gift for passion. And when they’re committed to a cause it can get messy. I appreciate the mess. And can still see myself among them. What got to me was that Clinton did not see himself among them, too. I can imagine one of the Steubenville kids walking up to Bill after the rally, saying, “You don’t recognize me, do you? I’m you forty years ago.”

Mr. Clinton is a past President of the United States, an elder statesman. He had an opportunity for a great teaching moment. He could have closed the gap a little, and said something like, “I was like you. I understand your passion, and I encourage your activism. But we really can’t dialogue right now, so this is not the right time”. Instead he came off like a rigid ideologue. And, yes, he did put words in their mouths. Words he knew had nothing to do with their cause. He really slammed the door shut.

By the way, I’ve heard from a few people that the kids making noise in the video may not have been Franciscan students. The standard mode for Franciscan protests is, evidently, to remain quiet, prayerful and respectful in such situations. All of this said, still, I largely agree with Marion.

By Z AT 02.22.08 02:24AM Not Rated


I agree with most of what is said in this article.  As a student at Franciscan University, however, I just want to clarify a few points.  The man who yelled at Bill Clinton during his speech was NOT a student from Franciscan University.  He is a man from the local community who also attended the rally to protest Clinton’s policies on abortion.  The students who were at the rally were quiet, respectful, and prayerful.  Only a few of the students were even inside.  Most of them remained outside praying.  The students of Franciscan University involved in the Pro-Life movement are aware that the only way to end abortion is to change the hearts of those involved with it, and this is the focus of the university’s work in this area.  Consistent with this mission, the students’ presence at the rally was a peaceful and prayerful one.

By Harold Fickett AT 02.22.08 03:06AM Not Rated

Harold Fickett

Marion, this is a helpful complement to Bill’s. Although I have voted for years with an eye to a pro-life Supreme Court, I realize that if the Court were to overturn Roe and Casey tomorrow and return the matter to the states, at least half of those states would reinstitute abortion immediately.  The fundamental problem is cultural, before it’s political, and how we communicate, as Bill agrees, is essential. 

I’m glad to see you, Z, on GodSpy.  I have immense respect for Franciscan University, and I hope many there will find in GodSpy a source of help and inspiration, as I have found in the witness of the university itself.

By Carlos Ugarte AT 02.22.08 03:21AM Not Rated

Carlos Ugarte

The fact is ... we would not be discussing this at all if they had showed up and been polite. No one would find that kind of video clip remarkable or compelling. No one would be reading your thoughts on the matter. So for that reason alone I am glad they did what they did and Bill reacted the way he did.

By Angelo Matera AT 02.22.08 08:00PM Not Rated

Angelo Matera

I think that clearly there’s a lot of agreement within pro-life circles on how to communicate the message, and there’s no question that one reason that public opinion on abortion has been slowly shifting to the pro-life side (and the number of abortions has been coming down) is the compassionate outreach to women in trouble through the hundreds of crisis pregnancy centers around the country. That’s one of the big stories that the media has under-reported.

That said, I do think one of the more important points Marion made was about public perception of the abortion tragedy - that people know a life is being ended but that it’s a tragic response to a bad situation, and that given a choice it’s better for a child not to be born than to come into a world unwanted, or for a woman to have her life disrupted. Research from groups like the Caring Foundation showed that many women viewed the choice as either the death of the child, or of their own life. That’s not to justify it, but to explain it. While 4d sonograms and other scientific developments are helping to confirm the humanity of the unborn, and that is leading more women to choose life, there is a large segment of the public who is pro-choice (at least in the early stages of pregnancy) because they view these situations as tragic but beyond solution.

This part of the problem won’t be solved unless and until Christians build a civilization of love here in the US, which makes tangible the sort of hope that Pope Benedict wrote about in his last encylical. We should fight to change the law, no matter what, because it’s wrong, but unless we also change the culture and change hearts, abortion will go underground, and we’ll have a situation here similar to the one in many Latin American countries where abortion is illegal but the abortion rate is higher than in Europe, where it’s legal (although restricted to a greater extent than here).

By peterwilson1 AT 02.22.08 10:54PM Not Rated


How ‘nice’ it would have been if the German people (and the watching world) had used a little more ‘rational’ argument, ‘charity’...and, most of all, ‘nuance’ in its criticism of the Third Reich’s extermination policies.  Perhaps the good ‘ol SS folks might have served up a really fine ‘last meal’, a spectacular Aryan feast…and maybe even a few cocktails…

peter wilson

By salindger AT 02.23.08 06:35AM Not Rated


I agree with Marion that pro-life approach needs to be nuanced and aimed at changing the culture.  Yet Peter and others make a very important point that such approaches are not enough.  I know a nurse that assists abortions at Planned Parenthood.  While we hang out with other people and I give her a ride out of charity, I so far have not discussed the issue of sanctity of life, even though she and others talk about her “work” openly.  I keep debating if and when would be a good time, but usually I change the subject.  Certainly I will, if I am asked, yet I don’t feel comfortable raising the issue first.  If and when that happens, I would like to discuss up whether pro-choice people would also agree that things would be better if women didn’t need abortions, and how we could create such a culture.  I think consensus building is good, and finding a common goal that we would want to work toward.  And yet, how do I not talk about the lives lost, Planned Parenthood not reporting underage rape, etc.?  Where do we start?  Oh Lord, help us.

By Johnny Vino AT 02.25.08 04:57AM Not Rated

Johnny Vino

With the way the Clintons have been campaigning lately, I assumed the protesters were plants.  Why show up to heckle a has been?

I appreciate the whole “change hearts” perspective advanced by so many of those that reject the confrontational approach - or the protest mentality in general. At the same time those calls, from some corners, show a profound ignorance of who pro-lifers actually are, and what they do.  Meanwhile, Catholics who are apologists for pro-choice Democrats would never accept someone saying we need to “change the hearts and minds” of Americans when it comes to poverty issues, the environment, the death penalty, health care, and war.  On the contrary, they adhere to a belief that it’s essential to address such things through electing politicians who promise to make Government an active agent of positive change.  Setting aside the debatable earnestness behind such political positions, the Catholic left seems oblivious to the dangerous equating of Charity, the divine virtue, with legislative and bureaucratic promises.  Could you imagine America pleading for more nuanced opposition to the war in Iraq?  Would the editors of the National Catholic Reporter say that we should work to change the hearts and minds of Americans on the plight of immigrants rather than shouting self-righteous and divisive demands from bullhorns at pro-immigrant rallies? 

Those are rhetorical questions.

By chassup AT 03.05.08 10:48PM Not Rated


Imagining nuanced dialog with someone who thinks partial-birth abortion is a moral good could be considered naive, if not irrational.  I’m all for changing hearts and minds, but, for me, politics is about votes, it’s about winning elections to better cultivate and defend a culture of life.  Politics is not preaching the Gospel, politics is a contact sport best played cleanly, aggressively and with the ultimate goal of victory.  Bill Clinton only gets angry and points his finger when someone challenges his immorality, and he usually protests too much.

By Marion Maendel AT 03.07.08 02:30AM Not Rated

Marion Maendel

My thanks to those who have taken time to respond to the blog.  The comments illustrate crucial and largely complementary approaches to our common cry against abortion.

Some questioned the word choice “nuanced,” which I used in addition to “rational” and “charitable” mainly to contrast the image many abortion advocates have of “pro-lifers.” “Nuance” can mean a sappy and fragile sort of nicety, and in that sense, I would be the first to agree it has no place in the fight against evil, whether at the personal, interpersonal or legislative level.  But as my trusty dictionary defines it, nuance also means “a sensibility to, an awareness of, or an ability to express subtle shadings of meaning, feeling or value.” This is the definition I had in mind while writing, and I maintain that it is a critically important skill in our efforts to evangelize this culture of death.

I was going through some writings by John Paul II this week – specifically pertaining to human dignity and/or the right to life—and I was struck that while his condemnation of abortion was unapologetically clear and consistent (so much that the press labeled him “obsessed” on the matter) he was not afraid to draw on a wealth of communicative approaches to make his point.  To artists, he spoke as an artist, in language that resonated; to philosophers, as a philosopher; to government rulers as Supreme Pontiff.  He was, for me, the finest example of St. Paul’s exhortation to “be all things to all men” in preaching the Good News.  His words brim with reason, charity, and yes, nuance.  And they are unflinchingly strong.

An excerpt from “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” illustrates this compelling combination.  Speaking of abortion, the Pope said,
“It is necessary to recognize that in this context we are witnessing true human tragedies.  Often the woman is the victim of male selfishness, in the sense that the man, who has contributed to the conception of the new life, does not want to be burdened with it and leaves the responsibility to the woman, as if it were ‘her fault’ alone.  Precisely when the woman most needs the man’s support, he proves to be a cynical egotist, capable of exploiting her affection of weakness, yet stubbornly resistant to any sense of responsibility for his own action.  Therefore, in firmly rejecting ‘pro-choice,’ it is necessary to courageously become pro-woman, promoting a choice that is truly in favor of woman…The only honest stance, in these cases, is that of radical solidarity with the woman.  It is not right to leave her alone…

We find ourselves here before a very delicate situation, both from the point of view of human rights and from a moral and pastoral point of view. All these aspects are intertwined…Therefore, I categorically reject every accusation or suspicion concerning the Pope’s alleged ‘obsession’ with this issue.  We are dealing with a problem of tremendous importance, in which all of us must show the utmost responsibility and vigilance.  We cannot afford forms of permissiveness that would lead directly to the trampling of human rights (p. 206-7).

By Joe Schriner AT 03.10.08 12:57AM Not Rated

Joe Schriner

I’m a Catholic and independent presidential candidate who gives talks in churches all over the country on abortion.  To set the stage, I take them to Nazi Germany during World War II and say that on Sunday mornings some of the trains going to the Concentration Camps would slowly go by the Christian churches with children screaming, parents wailing.  The response in the churches?  They would turn the organ music up and sing louder.  We become aghast at these accounts.. The year is now 2008, and today metaphorically there will be 4,400 little babies going down a metaphoric track on a metaphoric train—to their deaths.  And the response in many of the churches—and among much of the readership of this magazine?  Most, just as metaphorically, also sing louder.  We busy ourselves with extra-curricular activity, with over work, with entertainment, with heavy thinking about just the right thing to write on abortion—while meanwhile, these little babies continue to go to their deaths!  Abortion would end tomorrow if, with the vigor and boldness of these Franciscan students, we went to the street corners of our towns every day with protest signs and rosaries.  What the neighbors think, be damned.  If we flooded the newspapers with pro-life letters to the editor, flooded our legislators with letters.  If every other billboard was a pro-life billboard.  If we started crisis pregnancy centers in every town and then staffed and funded them to the hilt (instead of spending the money on dinners at Applebies where we “talk” about how horrible abortion is over a spicy chicken salad).  The fact is, we’re worried about appearances so we won’t go to our neighborhood street corners every day, every week.  The fact is, television watching is more important than protesting and letter to the editor writing about this atrocity(just look at the time you spend on either in a week).  The fact is, most of us wouldn’t dream of house sharing, selling the car and taking the bus, skipping the dinners out, taking half (if not more) of our savings… and funding a genuine, full scale push to stop abortion.  You know, I say in my talks:  “Do you think any of this is lost on God?  Hardly.”  The sins of ommission are so great among those who know how evil this Holocaust is, but still won’t move out of their comfort zones to stop it.  My wife and I gave up our careers, took to the road and try to fight this evil (and many others) at every turn.  We’re all called to be saints, not Applebies customers.

By salindger AT 03.10.08 03:26AM Not Rated


I went by a job fair at the Harvard School of Public Health just by chance(probably grace).  I couldn’t help but noticed that NARAL and Unicef had tables recruiting people to promote “women’s health.”  That got me thinking.  Why don’t pro-life organizations hire graduates from public health schools?  Certainly, the people who get degrees in public health, epidemiology, etc. may be biased in their view of “women’s health” but I am sure there are just as many who are pro-life.  Yet they don’t have an opportunity to use their education toward educating people about the dangers of abortion.  Why don’t pro-life organizations make their presence at such events?

Is this an opportunity to create change? Certainly wanting to defend the defenseless should be enough to start such a movement.  My weakness tell me that “but then I am not a public-health person!”  Is this my excuse for not getting going on this?  I guess we would first need to develop new or existing organizations that would have enough scientific weight that we could attract public health students, and be considered a legit organization.  Perhaps the local archdiocese pro-life office could have a table, but we would need a way to project us as just as relevant in “public health” as NARAL.

By LarissaL AT 03.10.08 06:19AM Not Rated


Salindger- Are you in public health school or recently graduated? Or graduated but not recently? smile

I am finishing my MPH in Health Education right now. I personally don’t think there are a ton of pro-life people in public health, but I also don’t think I am the only one. Right now I am hoping to use it to promote NFP and breastfeeding, but I certainly hope to use it for other pro-life causes!


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