BC SealBoston College Magazine Spring 2005
In This Issue
Linden Lane
Works and Days
Letters to the Editor
Special Section
BCM Home
Contact BCM
Coming Events
. Features



An anti-abortion lawyer presents her case

By William Bole

Several U.S. Catholic bishops created a stir in 2004 by declaring that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights would be ineligible to receive Holy Communion. Suddenly, Catholics were debating questions like whether the souls of such politicians are properly disposed toward reception of the Eucharist, whether it is a mortal sin for the faithful to vote for pro-choice candidates, and what the suitable penalties should be for public figures who deviate from their Church's stance. But in the end, the public heard little in the way of pro-life arguments by bishops, apart from the ultimatums of a few.

This was an irony not lost on the majority of prelates. The matter of communion "became the issue that everyone understood—or thought they understood," Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., lamented in a talk at Boston College on March 3. "The denial of Holy Communion became the focal point of the discussion—not the defense of human life and the dignity of the human person." Even the cardinal, in his lecture, did not have leisure to say much about abortion as such. His business at BC was to argue against entangling the Eucharist in politics, especially single-issue politics.

One person who has this leisure, this vocation, is Helen M. Alvaré. Her work with the Church reaches back 18 years, beginning when she was 26 and serving as a legal counsel for the bishops' conference in Washington, D.C. She became the conference's pro-life spokesperson in 1990, holding that post for 10 years, until she walked across Michigan Avenue to begin her professorial career at the Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law. On March 16, Alvaré delivered a public lecture titled "A Commitment to Life," sponsored by BC's Church in the 21st Century Initiative and the Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry.

THE EVENT, in McGuinn Hall, garnered no next-day coverage in the Boston Globe, as the cardinal's talk had. Even so, Alvaré's presentation was a sign that the art of persuasion is still alive in the Church's pro-life ranks, and that some prominent Catholics are still advancing arguments with empirical evidence that might appeal to people of differing faiths or no faith.

"There is a way of speaking about abortion that does not drive people crazy," explained Alvaré, and for the next hour and a half she moved about the front of the lecture room, briskly attacking her subject. With a wireless microphone and not so much as an index card in hand, she marshaled a host of data, opinion-poll findings, and snippets of Supreme Court opinions.

One of Alvaré's beefs is with boilerplate accounts of the high court's 1973 ruling, Roe v. Wade. The usual rendering is that the court legalized abortion in the first three or perhaps six months of pregnancy, allowing later abortions only to protect the mother's health. Alvaré's message is: Read the fine print. In an accompanying decision, Doe v. Bolton, the justices defined health so expansively as to cover (in their words) "all factors—physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age"—effectively spanning the realm of possible circumstances. This is what pro-life activists mean by abortion on demand, although pro-choice advocates say abortion services are hard to come by in many communities across the country.

"I remember sitting down with reporters in the 1980s and 1990s, showing them the cases, and they couldn't believe it," Alvaré said of the broad exception. "So, Roe is . . . all abortions at all times."

She tossed out some polling factoids, such as the finding that just 13 percent of the public believes abortion should be legal in every circumstance. Put another way, little more than a tenth of the citizenry consents to "the law we're living under," argued the law professor in summation of her point. (Abortion polls themselves are a subject of contention. A recent Harris survey put the pro-choice-in-every-instance figure at 23 percent.)

By most accounts, the controversy over "partial-birth" abortion, known medically as "intact dilation and extraction," has helped to steer popular opinion in a somewhat pro-life direction recently. Alvaré had three words for those who are untroubled by this procedure—"Location, location, location. The child is not even inside the mother," Alvaré noted of these abortions, which take place after the unborn child has been partially pulled from the womb. "This is not like abortion," she said. "This is more like homicide."

After such a stinging critique of the legal status quo, it might be surprising to hear Alvaré say, "I don't think the law is the most important thing." She turned her audience's attention to other factors, including low education levels, low income, and low marriage rates, behind the million or more abortions each year in America. She also examined cultural attitudes that question the value of marriage and family.

"It seems to me that abortion is getting tied up with all of this," Alvaré said, noting that poor and minority women are more likely than others to get abortions. "It leads me to think that if we could intervene at any of these points—education, jobs, income, ideas about marriage and family—then we might also make a break in the number of abortions."

After the formal presentation, conversation turned to other remedies to abortion, particularly adoption. But it was Alvaré's legal points that made a singular impression on John Shea, a visiting theology professor and Augustinian priest who spoke from the back of the room. He told Alvaré that he found her presentation "disturbing," elaborating, "I get this sense that you're looking for salvation by legislation and politics." After Alvaré drew him into discussion, Shea shifted his fire toward the bishops, asserting that their thrust on the issue has been to coerce rather than persuade. Alvaré respectfully disagreed, although she acknowledged that the tactic of denying communion was indeed unlikely to "persuade people toward pro-life opinion."

That evening, Alvaré herself could have persuaded only so many people; fewer than 60 seats were filled in the hall. Nonetheless, her lecture might enjoy a good run on the Web. A video of the event may be viewed at BC's Front Row website.


William Bole's articles on religion and public affairs have appeared in the Washington Post, Commonweal, and other outlets. He lives in Andover, Massachusetts.


. . .
. .
. .
. .
Alumni Home
BC Home