Some guys have a way with words. That was Carl Sandburg, one of America’s best authors. Sandburg wrote history, biographies, novels, children’s literature, and poetry. In 1916, Sandburg’s job as a Chicago journalist inspired one of his most enduring works, The Chicago Poems. He described Chicago to a T: “city of big shoulders,” “stacker of wheat,” “player with railroads,” “freight handler to the nation,” and “hog butcher to the world.”
Ten years earlier, another guy who had a way with words wrote about the hog butchering. Journalist and muckraker Upton Sinclair authored The Jungle, a novel exposing the abuses in the meat packing industry. Sinclair had sympathy for the hogs — so innocent, so trusting even in protest. The hogs “had done nothing to deserve” their fate. They were killed “without a pretense at apology, without the homage of a tear.” “It was like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and of memory.”
But far worse for Sinclair was the fate of the plant workers. Industry tycoons driven by greed made unsuspecting workers pay with their lives. They worked more and more hours for less and less money. They stood in animal blood, in rooms sweltering hot or freezing cold. They reeked of odors they could not scrub off. Work injuries cost them their jobs forever. They slept on whatever floor space they could find. The police and the politicians fed off their misery. Starvation was rampant, as was despair. Unable to support their families, workers sold their souls. Children were forced to work in inhumane conditions. Fathers turned to alcohol or crime. Mothers and daughters turned to prostitution. Meanwhile, the rich got richer.
Over 100 years later, we’ve only gotten worse. The Center for Medical Progress is currently releasing a series of undercover videos about abortion industry leader Planned Parenthood. The videos reveal a company driven by the bottom line, more than willing to illegally sell the parts of the unborn for profit. Their medical directors described how they would carefully destroy babies so that intact organs could be sold. Profit is important: “I want a Lamborghini,” said one doctor. Brains were harvested from aborted babies still alive. How low will we go — selling the unborn for animal feed?
The disclosures have disgusted millions. Even abortion rights supporters are reassessing their positions. Some states and Congress have opened investigations of Planned Parenthood. A few states have already de-funded it. Congress has voted on ending the $500 million annual taxpayer outlay. Not surprisingly, pro-abortion politicians are supporting Planned Parenthood. A number of senators, including Catholics, have voted against the initial de-funding measure. They know full well where their bread is buttered — and who butters it.
How has our Catholic leadership reacted? Rather anemically. The USCCB issued a short statement condemning the barbaric practice. But as a group, the bishops are not always visible on the abortion issue. We don’t see them protesting in front of Congress, the White House, or Planned Parenthood. We don’t see them rallying the faithful. With few exceptions, we just don’t see them. At the diocesan and parish levels, there is little talk about the gruesome practice. It almost seems like our leaders have accepted legal abortion as part of the landscape.
A recent statement by the archbishop of Chicago might explain why. Writing about the appalling scandal, he said that we should be “no less appalled” by deaths from the lack of decent medical care, a broken immigration system, racism, hunger, joblessness, want, gun violence, and capital punishment.” Certainly those are problems, but which one involves the legal killing of innocent and defenseless human beings at the rate of about one million annually?
The archbishop’s statement bespeaks a social justice policy in conflict with itself, one paddling in all directions and so getting nowhere. At the root of the conflict is the failure to distinguish a social ill from a grave moral evil. Unquestionably, those social ills are significant and need to be constantly addressed by all of us. But legal abortion is in an altogether different class. We have literally legalized the killing of humans simply because they are alive and growing. There can be nothing more evil, more unjust, and more appalling than that.
So where is the conflict? It is that in pursing good, there is no attack on evil. Just as we must work to change hearts as to abortion, we must also work to change the prevailing law. It will require a change of Supreme Court justices, which will require a change in the President and Senators. The reality is that national party politics drives legal abortion; Democrats in office support it; Republicans in office oppose it. The problem is that Church leadership, eager to ally with Democrat politicians on some problems, gets no help from those same politicians in ending legal abortion. The irony here is that by not rallying the faithful to place primary emphasis on ending legal abortion, Church leadership has weakened the Catholic response on all other fronts. If legal abortion is accepted as a way of life, why should anyone be spurred to action as to immigration, or poverty, or joblessness, or gun violence, or capital punishment? Why not just accept those problems as part of the landscape, too? Just like we’ve accepted abortion.
Would we ever tell torn immigrant families or families grieving from gun violence that they should be “no less appalled” by abortion? Sadly, even in our Church we see the unborn as an issue, not as the persons they are. But the legalized killing of 58 million unborn babies is not an issue. It is a ghastly reality and horrendous evil. And the scariest part of all? It is happening on our watch. Do we think that God is not looking — and not taking notes? There may be hell to pay later. But for now, we must recognize that there are priorities in life that must drive our actions. Unless we make ending legal abortion the first thing on our social justice list, we will remain stuck where we find ourselves. Deep in the jungle.
Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois and have six children.