A narrow-minded, violent zealot—this is the media’s image of the pro-lifer. Helen Alvare fits another description. She is 31 years old, Hispanic, and Ivy League educated; she is a feminist, a lawyer, and an aspiring theologian—and she is also pro-life. She is the Director of Planning and Information for Pro-Life Activities at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB).
“This issue is not one among many, but rather it encompasses a world view about the value and dignity of each human life,” says Alvare, who holds an M.A. in systematic theology from Catholic University and a J.D. from Cornell.
Alvare recently represented the bishops at both the Democratic and the Republican platform committee hearings. Because the Catholic Church is known for its social justice tradition and is nonpartisan, both Democrats and Republicans granted the bishops’ requests to testify on behalf of the unborn.
When asked if she thinks the Democratic Party is hopelessly pro-choice, she answers, “It couldn’t be because the grassroots aren’t.” The Wirthlin Poll, funded by the NCCB/United States Catholic Conference (USCC), showed Democrats to be “about as pro-life as Republicans,” says Alvare.
The Democratic platform will not adopt the pro-life position this year, she added, but Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, an avidly pro-life Democrat, is affecting the grassroots of the Democratic party. At the platform hearings, Alvare saw many participants wearing “Liberal for Life” buttons. “Casey is getting exposure all over the nation,” she says, and she credits him with the party’s shifting stance on the abortion issue. He put platform committee members on the defensive and forced them to state, “We are not the party of abortion on demand.” Alvare calls this a “rhetorical contradiction,” since the Democratic platform accepts Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that allows abortion through the ninth month.
“The Democrats are in a crisis of definition,” Alvare says. “Are they the party of business with the heart of the unions? Are they the party of abortion on demand? Are they pro-family?… The abortion issue is such a core value issue that it cannot help but be at the center of their reflection.”
Clinton’s candidacy shows that these pro-life Democratic grassroots fast turn to tumble weeds; they are uprooted by the tremendous forces against them in the party leadership. Clinton has embraced “freedom of choice” without exception and fully supports Roe v. Wade. Clinton also would prohibit any parental involvement law.
Support for abortion rights is also one of the few issues prospective independent candidate Ross Perot has taken a stand on. The Texas billionaire says that he is for a woman’s right to choose in any circumstance, but he also says that men and women should be responsible for their actions and that human life is valuable. He “is voicing a conflicted conscience,” says Alvare, “or he is trying to straddle the fence in the most blatant way possible.” Perot’s wife, it should be noted, supports Planned Parenthood.
Even President George Bush, who is endorsed for re-election by the National Right to Life Committee, falls short of being Alvare’s ideal, since Bush makes exceptions for rape and incest. But her bosses, the U.S. bishops, always have had trouble finding kindred spirits among the nation’s lawmakers. “There is no political party that encompasses all the NCCB’s concerns,” says Alvare. “It is frustrating. There are very few seamless garment politicians.”
When arguing the consistent ethic of life, or “seamless garment” as it has come to be known, the NCCB points out that the vulnerable members of communities—whether they be the poor, various minorities, the unborn, the elderly, the disabled—need protection and special care. “The American tradition is not to punish the vulnerable, but rather to give them additional resources and equal opportunity,” Alvare says. The NCCB submits that this ethic should apply to those on death row as well and disapproves of the death penalty no matter how heinous the circumstances.
The NCCB tells pro-choice politicians that to punish the most vulnerable members of our society, those who cannot stand up for their own rights, is “antithetical to the American tradition.” To the pro-choice argument that outlawing abortion will not promote love for unwanted children, Alvare quotes Martin Luther King: “You can’t make the people love you by passing a law, but law has moral authority.” Living unloved by one’s own mother is horrific, but better than being dead.
Alvare cites statistics that show more pro-life Democrats are willing to vote for a pro-life Republican if the Democratic politician is pro-choice, while fewer pro-choice Republicans are willing to cross party lines to vote for a pro-choice Democrat. Based on this information, it seems reasonable to assume that Bush will not lose as many pro-choice Republican voters in the presidential election as Clinton and Perot will lose pro-life Democrats and independents. When flip-floppers enter office as pro-lifers but change under pressure from the abortion lobby, they usually go down for the count. Alvare gives as examples Mike Hayden, former governor of Kansas; Congressional candidates Neil Hartigan in Illinois, James Courter in New Jersey, and Anthony Celebrezze in Ohio. Dave Emory, a flip-flopper, lost to pro-life Tom Andrews in Maine, and state senator John Durkin, who became pro-choice to run for U.S. Senate, was defeated by pro-life candidate Bob Smith.
Alvare does not think of herself in terms of political parties. Although some like to link the pro-life movement with political conservatism, Alvare questions that. “If anything, I have become a little bit more liberal” while working at the NCCB, she says. Part of this is because “gospel values have a lot to do with options for the poor…. I am not a political expert, and I am not going to say… where these values are more present, one party or the other.”
Recently, however, she has been wondering whether assistance to particularly vulnerable members of society best comes from the private or the public sector. She consults “libertarians, a friend who is a communist, many friends who are Republican, and friends who are Democrats. I care a lot about what a particular piece of legislation will do,” she says.
She has considered herself a feminist “for many years.” While at an all-girls high school, she gained a tremendous sense of women’s accomplishments. “Feminism seemed natural. I do not mean the kind [of feminism] that thinks men and women must be androgynous, or in the same role in every situation,” she explains. “I think society should accommodate the differences men and women have, as well as provide equal opportunity.” A member of Feminists for Life (FFL), a national pro-life organization, she is a one-time member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) during her undergraduate years at Villanova. NOW disallowed the pro-life position among its members, so she and her pro-life friends left it for FFL. Alvare’s views are summarized by the bumper sticker on her small truck: “Real Feminists Don’t Kill Babies.” So far, no broken windows or flat tires.
Alvare points out that the Eagle Forum and Concerned Women for America, two other pro-life women’s organizations, have about 1 million members, four times more than NOW. These organizations have attracted more women in a few short years than the Fund for the Feminist Majority or NOW have in 25 years.
Alvare’s feminist identity makes her a more persuasive challenger to pro-choice women than other, more traditionalist women in the pro-life movement. Feminists for Life and NOW agree on some overlapping goals like child care and maternal leave policy. But “abortion without apology” so dominates NOW’s agenda that it permeates everything else they do. FFL is an important and viable alternative for women like Alvare—professionals who want to fight for an agenda of equal pay and equal opportunity for women and human rights for all, including the unborn.
To pro-choice feminists, FFL directs a traditional feminist argument. If it is wrong for men to achieve greatness by oppressing women, “then it is wrong for women who have abortions to build their accomplishments on the backs of another class,” the unborn.
“Pregnancy is a temporary state of deformation of the women’s body in order to generate the race” and “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament”—these pro-abortion bromides reveal the belief of radical feminists: women are at a terrible disadvantage. This is identical to the old sexist argument “that men are biologically superior to women,” Alvare says. “Because our biology is different, our ability to bear children is different, therefore we are inherently inferior?” she asks.
“Instead of attacking the [educational, business, and government] institutions that denigrate our differences,” these radical feminists attack women’s unchangeable biology and psychology. Thus, they sow the seeds of their own defeat. “Second, they have missed the forest, not just the trees. The opportunity costs are great,” she laments. The money, time, and energy spent on advocating abortion “rights” could have been spent on changing the way our institutions and legal system think about pregnant women and mothers.
Of the over 100 million dollars for child support disputed in courts today, 90 percent is owed by fathers to their children, Alvare says. Twenty-one percent of women who have abortions cite economic reasons for their choice. This problem is especially acute among blacks and Hispanics because a larger proportion of them are poor. The NCCB/USCC, every state Catholic conference, and every diocese in the country support legislation that would enforce child support laws and require more male accountability. Perhaps radical feminists could further women’s rights and equality between the sexes by focusing more on this kind of change.
Abortion is a cheap fix. The widespread notion that sex without responsibility, without limitations, is liberating and psychologically desirable has made abortion the back-up contraceptive in our society. Alvare tells of Massachusetts’s Governor William Weld’s statement: “We are willing to pay the price” for cheap, quick abortions at any time during the pregnancy. An irate feminist law professor at Harvard University responded, says Alvare, in an angry letter that 2,000 women signed within 48 hours and the Boston Globe published. They complained, Alvare explains, that the governor’s comment was “a new version of the old argument, ‘Get rid of it honey, I’ll pay the price,’ ”
Alvare has difficulty persuading many pro-choicers of the greater good of the pro-life position because they fail to recognize the premise on which they are basing their position. Tell them they are choosing convenience, economic and material comforts, or other self-interests, e.g. sexual gratification, over the life and care of another human being and many pro-choicers protest, dissemble, and fail to comprehend the logical implications of their decision. Those who do understand the reasoning behind the position are, not surprisingly, more intractable. Some call it “justifiable homicide.” Because theirs is an intellectual conviction, only a conversion of the heart will change their position.
If given the opportunity, many women would choose practical solutions to their needs rather than choose abortions; crisis pregnancy centers meet these needs. “I’ll travel through six states to do a fund-raiser for crisis pregnancy centers because I believe in them so strongly,” says Alvare. These centers provide counseling as well as cribs, food, baby clothes, and child care. In Kansas, Alvare says, no woman has chosen abortion after being helped in a practical way. The Catholic Church is the single largest private provider of services to the born, second only to the federal government, according to the Nonprofit Times.
Part of Alvare’s job is to speak regularly with members of the press. “I still have trouble” with media bias, she says. She was booked to appear on ABC’s “Abortion: A Civil War” but was called the night before she was to appear and told she was being replaced by Father Richard McBrien of Notre Dame, who had been quoted in the Wall Street Journal the week before saying the American bishops are “medieval and small-minded.” So, ABC allowed no one who would vigorously defend the Church’s teaching on abortion to appear. Recently, MacNeil/Lehrer also canceled an appearance by Alvare; they said they wanted “a more rhetorical, social perspective than academic one,” according to Alvare. They chose instead the director of the National Right to Life.
Perhaps the media—80 percent of whom identify themselves as “strongly in support of legal abortion”—hesitate to broadcast such an articulate, attractive spokeswoman, who argues so convincingly on abortion and related issues. She points out in interviews, for example, that the proposal by the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and others to distribute condoms in high schools and on college campuses is incoherent, since the rate of abortion has increased steadily with the rate of contraception use. She also points out that NARAL has never funded the use of contraceptives before.
“I don’t have to accuse the media of imbalance: they have accused themselves.” The Los Angeles Times’ four-part series by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist David Shaw concluded that there is tremendous bias against the pro-life position. In 1991, the Washington Post underwent harsh criticism over the grossly disproportionate coverage of the right-to-life and pro-choice marches that year. (Surprisingly, this year the Post ran an unusually balanced story of the pro-choice march and even took polls of the marchers that revealed how radical and unrepresentative of the general population they were.)
Alvare has always been pro-life. She says a woman reporter from the Boston Globe suspected that Alvare had once been pro-choice, but changed her position “to be an oddity, a 31 year old Hispanic, Ivy League-educated pro-life feminist as a way of getting attention—the way a black Republican is still newsworthy.” Fortunately, Alvare’s college friends assured the skeptical reporter that she has always been pro-life. She had not, however, been an activist before her work with the USCG and NCCB, except in the area of rights for the disabled. She sees a natural relationship between these two areas.
Growing up in a Cuban-American family in Philadelphia, she attended Catholic schools for 15 years, entered law school at 21, and graduated a young 23. She started on the power track at the law firm of Stradley, Ronon, Stevens, and Young, but experienced a career crisis at age 27, when she decided to move to Washington, D.C., to start a doctoral program in theology for which she received a scholarship.
Working as a litigator in her hometown of Philadelphia, she became dissatisfied and began re-thinking her career. She found theology “inherently interesting.” Anthropology is another favorite subject. Since she has always been interested in church-state relations, working for the bishops in the area of public policy seemed a natural fit. She took a leave of absence from her doctoral program to be their spokesman on the abortion issue.
She agrees with Edmund Husserl, the twentieth-century German philosopher and mentor to Edith Stein, that “the truth lies not in definition, but distinction”—you don’t know the truth until it is thrown up against its opposite. Her husband, an economist for the Department of Commerce, was pro-choice for many years. Their debates over seven years of marriage deepened her understanding of the importance of the pro-life position. Finally, her husband changed his view. She says it was “the illogic of his own position, not the logic of mine” that made the difference.
Like Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, she agrees that the highest state of moral development is reached only when one has absolute care for the life of another, especially a child. “Only in my thirties am I starting to come to grips with the concrete,” she explains. Alvare thinks that until she has raised children, she will not have “actually experienced life.” This month she and her husband are moving from their apartment in Washington, D.C., to a house in Bethesda, Maryland, to raise a family. She hopes to continue her work on the vital issue of abortion and concludes, “I feel that the greatest contribution you can make to the world is a generation of decent human beings.”