Though my husband and I prayed for, talked with and sang to our son Peter through his 39 weeks and 3 days of gestation, it was still a surprise to see his face for the first time. He was no stranger. We knew him before he was born. He came from the knowing and being known of our marital love. For nine months he and I were inextricably connected by biology. Daily, for a year, he has taken nourishment from my body, and for many years to come will count on my husband and me to provide for his physical needs. Even when Peter leaves our home, we will be connected by the unbreakable cord of familial love. And yet, he was and is totally “other” to us. He is his own person, known and called by his Creator.
It makes me wonder about the experience of the pro-choice woman who opts for motherhood. The number of women, children of the feminist movement, who have succeeded in their careers, found a partner and settled down to parenting is growing. Many in their late 30s and early 40s resort to rounds of fertility drugs or other extraordinary measures to fulfill their longing for children.
To stay true to her ideologies, the pro-choice woman must regard the child in her womb as just an extension of her own body – a mass of cells, there by her choice – a disposable commodity. Then in an instant, she holds an entirely new person. What must she feel? Affection, bolstered by the surge of childbirth hormones, comes naturally to most women. Even love, in its infancy, is not so difficult. When rosy cheeks, long lashes and dimpled thighs wake you up in the wee hours of the night, lovingly sacrificing sleep is almost easy.
But what about respect?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church sternly commands parents to “regard their children as children of God and respect them as human persons (para 2222).” Although the admonition seems painfully obvious – after all, who would treat their child as anything less than a human person? – it is a much needed warning to mothers and fathers in a pro-choice society. Consider the dichotomy created by the culture of death: Can we disregard the humanity of the unborn and suddenly respect infants on the outside of the womb? Is it possible to dismiss the true significance of conjugal love – as inconvenient as it is glorious and sanctifying – then cherish the fruit of sexual intimacy as the “crowning glory” of marriage?
One doesn’t have to look far for answers to these questions. Some parents forever resent the demands of their children. Others are unable to see their children as anything other than an extension of themselves. They have their children on a permanent umbilical tether and live their dreams vicariously through their sons and daughters. We Catholics are hardly exempt from the subtle disregard for the young that pervades our culture. The typical response to a crying baby at Mass is “get that kid out of here!” instead of gratitude for the child of God in our midst.
Culturally, we define respect as a positive judgment which must be merited. We expect our coworkers to win us over by working longer and harder, our husbands to earn our respect by bringing roses and showering us with compliments and our children to gain our esteem by getting good grades and minding their manners. Infants can’t prove anything to us, so while we love them, it seems foolish to respect them as persons.
But the Church calls us to live the original meaning of the word ‘respect’ which is derived from the Latin ‘respicere’, ‘to look back at, regard, or consider.’ We are to look at the unborn, the infant, the poor, the crippled, the mentally disabled and consider who we all are in Christ — children of God. We are all entirely dependent on the mercy and providence of our loving Father for our life, breath, daily bread and very existence. He holds us in being and without Him we can do nothing. Yet, as the Catechism reminds us, the Creator of all things deeply respects the freedom of his creatures. We can choose to love him, or turn from him. No matter what we decide, our Father respects us for who we are – beloved and made in his Image – not for what we do.
Only if we embrace this truth – that we are all spiritual infants in the womb of this world waiting to be born into Eternal Life – can we truly respect our own selves, and our own children.