Quilt with hearts pattern

The following article is Copyright © 2006 by Mary Meehan. A shorter version appears in Consistently Opposing Killing, ed. by Rachel M. MacNair and Stephen Zunes.

Changing Hearts and Minds

Mary Meehan

What is it that turns people around on issues of life and death? What leads them to choose life over war, abortion, the death penalty, suicide, and euthanasia? If they are on the death side of any issue, how can we help them turn around?

It's important to remember that persuasion is an art, not a science. Logic can and should help the process, but human beings are not logic machines. We are complicated critters, with layers of experience, buckets of questions, sudden springs of hope, and many contradictions. All of this works against an approach of sheer logic. Often we have to touch people's hearts before we can reach their minds. Or perhaps it's better to say that we have to do both at the same time.

Perhaps you are discussing life issues with a friend, either an old friend or someone you meet on a trip. It might even be someone who is picketing against your position at a public event--someone you befriend on the spot. Here are some ideas you might keep in mind.

Messengers with a Zest for Life

The messenger may well be the most important part of the message. Helen Alvaré, an attorney who for years was a leading pro-life spokeswoman, once said that "people are more or less attracted to your message in direct proportion to whether they are...attracted to your person." She listed several key questions about an audience. "Do they like people like you?....Do they like the world view you're selling? Do they want to live there?"(1) Alvaré herself was extremely effective as a spokeswoman because she has a zest for life, is attractive and a skilled speaker, and has a good sense of humor. She has pizazz; but when the time comes for it, she can trade logic with the best of them; and she has deep commitment. We can't all have her talents; but all of us should have a zest for life, a real sense of its joy and adventure. When we communicate that in our speech and behavior, others are inclined, in Alvaré's words, to like the world view we're selling and "want to live there."

One problem, though, is that some people who are deeply involved in the defense of human life are beaten down by all the threats to life and the great difficulty of overcoming them. They may feel guilty, at least subconsciously, about the idea of enjoying life when so many victims of violence and killing cannot enjoy it. They may sink into depression and become wholly ineffective in their work, because their depression repels the very people they want to convert.

This problem may be more widespread than people realize. Nearly all of the struggles for life are uphill and discouraging, so that some activists live on the edge of despair for many years. It's important for them to realize that, as W. B. Yeats wrote, "Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart."(2) They absolutely need to get away, on a regular basis, from work and worry and deadly-serious issues. They need days off and real vacations. Time to walk in the woods, visit old friends, take a child on a merry-go-round, or rake leaves in the bracing air of a fine October day. Time to do everything that reminds them of why they enlisted to defend life in the first place. Only if they do this, only if they understand that they have a right to "the pursuit of happiness," can they be effective in working for others' lives and chance for happiness.

Autumn trail

Respect for the Person

Respect for others should be a bedrock position of anyone involved in the defense of life, and it includes respect for one's adversaries. This means avoiding personal attacks. It means refraining from name-calling that depersonalizes others by reducing them to a general political stance or to their position on one issue ("right-wing fanatics" or "Religious Right," "leftists" or "pro-aborts"). It's important to keep focused on the act of killing rather than personal attacks on those who support it. We can't know their interior state, and we have to remember that good people can support evil acts--and do so in good conscience, although conscience caught in deep error.

There is no substitute for old-fashioned courtesy in opening doors and hearts. Years ago I saw Elizabeth McAlister and other peace activists leaflet at the Pentagon during a Good Friday protest against nuclear weapons. The peace people were both polite and cheerful; they knew that courtesy does not mean selling out. Replying to a "Happy Easter!" from one leafleter, a Pentagon worker said, "Thank you. God bless you."

In many cases, of course, the folks on the other side respond with hostility instead of good will. Then we have to go deeper than respect and courtesy; we have to go to love. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., managed to do this when his home was bombed during the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that he led in 1955-56. King was presiding over a mass meeting in church at the time; but his wife, infant daughter, and a visitor were at the King home. Fortunately, they were not harmed by the bomb, although the house certainly was. Dr. King, alerted about the bombing, rushed to the scene and found his home surrounded by a large and growing crowd of African Americans who were quite angry about the bombing. City officials and police feared a riot, but King calmed the crowd and urged them to go home. "I want you to love our enemies," he said. "Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them."(3)

It would be hard for any movement defending life to find a better slogan than this in dealing with its adversaries: Love them and let them know you love them.

Some ex-abortion clinic workers have been won over to the pro-life side because of love they experienced from people who demonstrated against their clinics. Norma McCorvey, former lead plaintiff as "Jane Roe" in Roe v. Wade, is one.(4) The case of another, Judith Fetrow is striking because she initially experienced hostility from pro-life demonstrators at the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic where she worked. On one occasion, she was so upset by her work that she decided to leave the clinic. But on her way out, demonstrators started shouting at her: "Murderer! The blood is on your hands!" Fetrow felt as though "someone had kicked me in the stomach," so she went back into the clinic and "back to work."

But a sidewalk counselor named Steve reached out to her, chatting with her in a friendly way. "It took some time," Fetrow recalled, "it took enormous dedication, and it took the patience of a saint. But over several weeks we developed a friendship across the lines, based on trust." Fetrow again left the clinic; but this time she did not return.(5)

Pro-life activists with 'She's a Baby/Not a Choice' signs

Understand Where They're Coming From

When Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., was first involved in the anti-death penalty movement, she did not reach out to the families of murder victims. That would have been awkward, since she was serving as spiritual adviser to a man on death row. But Prejean had a virtue that is too rare among activists; she was able to learn from her critics. Some complained in letters to editors that she hadn't contacted the families of the man's victims. So she urged a Catholic bishop to visit and comfort the two victims' families, who lived in his diocese; and the bishop did so. Prejean also encouraged an acquaintance to involve the diocese in survivors' support work. This resulted in a special annual Mass, led by the bishop, for victims of criminal violence. The diocese also helped organize a victims' support group.

In another case, Vernon Harvey, a murder victim's stepfather who suffered deep grief and a consuming desire for vengeance, contacted Sister Prejean, who offered to visit him and his wife. Prejean was then spiritual adviser to a man on death row who had raped and murdered the Harveys' daughter. Her visit resulted in a friendship with the Harveys, although one subjected to much strain. Prejean attended executions to pray with and comfort the men about to die, while the Harveys were there to celebrate.

It was a rewarding friendship, though, especially after the Harveys invited Prejean to attend a Parents of Murdered Children meeting. Prejean didn't want to go. "I've been avoiding the victims," she admitted to herself, "because I'm afraid they'll turn on me and attack me. I fear their anger and rejection. Plus, I feel so helpless in face of their suffering. I don't begin to know how to help them." But she summoned up the courage to go, and she learned much from the other survivors, as she had from the Harveys. This helped her start a support group for family survivors of murder victims in New Orleans. It also helped make Prejean's Dead Man Walking one of the best anti-death penalty books there is, because it acknowledges the enormity of the crimes that send people to death row, describes the deep suffering of the victims' survivors, and suggests ways to help the survivors.(6)

Book cover of Sister Helen Prejean's <em>Dead Man Walking</em>

Anti-war activists would do well to follow Prejean's example by talking to hawkish war veterans and to families of men or women killed in combat. This will not necessarily lead to conversions on either side, but it might result in greater sensitivity on both sides and less bitterness in debates over war. This means that more citizens are likely to listen to the debates and take their substance seriously. Whatever they think of the constitutional aspects of laws against flag-burning, for example, anti-war people should be able to say, "We're just flat-out opposed to burning the flag. Many brave soldiers have suffered greatly and died under that flag. We don't want to dishonor their sacrifice or add to their families' suffering." Likewise, veterans and families of those killed in combat should be able to say about the war in Iraq that is debated at this writing, "Many of us think the anti-war people are mistaken, but we can't question their patriotism. And we know that they mourn the American casualties of this war, as well as the Iraqi ones."

Citizens who contact politicians about life-and-death issues are more effective when they understand where the politicians are coming from. Often it's not just politics, as we're too likely to assume. Many politicians have had personal experiences that bear on the issue at hand. Some members of Congress, for example, are war veterans; it's helpful to know about their war experience and how it affected them before talking with them about current wars.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is a strong supporter of legal abortion, partly because of an experience he had as a prosecutor when abortion was illegal. A young woman in Vermont nearly died from, and was left sterile by, a botched abortion. "Our investigation," Senator Leahy told Judge David Souter at the hearing on Souter's nomination to the Supreme Court, "found that the man arranging the abortions would bring young women from the Burlington area in Vermont, across the border to Montreal. The abortions were then performed by a woman who had learned the procedure while working for the SS at Auschwitz. The man I prosecuted would then blackmail these women after the abortion, either for money or for sex." Leahy's prosecution resulted in a conviction and sent the man to prison. He suggested to Souter that the case showed "what the practical effect of outlawing abortion might be."(7)

A powerful story, but one that raises other questions Leahy may not have considered. Doesn't the fact that the Nazis were aborting their enemies at Auschwitz say something about abortion itself?(8) Is Leahy aware that legal abortionists have also botched many abortions and injured many women? Has he considered the possibility that a pregnancy aid center in Burlington--one well-advertised on the University of Vermont campus there--would have given women good and life-saving alternatives to the ex-Auschwitz abortionist? Has Leahy ever talked with Feminists for Life about their program to make campuses more parent-friendly and child-friendly?(9) These are questions that Vermonters should ask the Senator.

Explain Where You're Coming From

You may not have a story as striking as Sen. Leahy's; but, then again, you may. When discussion turns to eugenic abortion and someone says that "there's just no future for a child with Down Syndrome," you may be able to say, "Hey, wait a minute! I have a little sister with Down Syndrome; she's a happy kid and is doing pretty well in school. She's never going to be a corporate CEO or President of the United States--but then most of aren't, are we? Doesn't she have as much right to the pursuit of happiness as the rest of us have?"

Or perhaps you majored in history in college, and you're discussing the latest war with a friend. Perhaps you can say, "You know, I was brought up in a family that always followed the flag; my ancestors and relatives fought in every American war from the Revolution to Vietnam. But in college, when I studied the Indian wars, the Mexican war, the First World War, and Vietnam, I couldn't justify our country's position. It seemed that we'd done a lot to start most of the wars we'd been involved in. That's not to say the other side was always right. Often both sides were wrong--That's how I felt about Vietnam. But that academic conclusion turned to bitter grief when my oldest brother died there. And my parents never got over it."

Stress Principles and People
They Admire

Politicians and others are far more likely to consider points that come from their own political or philosophical tradition than from their usual opponents. Thus Senator Leahy might possibly listen to Feminists for Life, but he's unlikely to be impressed by someone from Pat Robertson's "700 Club." I doubt that even Feminists for Life could change Leahy's basic position on abortion; but a thoughtful and persistent approach might at least make him less vehement and activist about it.

Many liberals and radicals would just as soon pass up a chance to talk with conservative Republicans about end-of-life issues. But attorney and anti-euthanasia activist Wesley Smith has a good chance of getting to first base with them, partly because he used to work with Ralph Nader. Smith stresses class issues that matter a great deal to people on the left. He once wrote, for example, that "most leaders of the euthanasia movement, such as the author Betty Rollin and the physician Dr. Timothy Quill, are people of the 'overclass': well-off whites with a strong and supportive family or social structure who never believe they could be victimized or pressured into choosing an early death." He added that euthanasia leaders "downplay the harm that will follow for the poor, the uneducated, those without access to medical care, or the disabled, many of whom see themselves as being in the crosshairs on this issue."(10)

Not Dead Yet is a feisty group of people with disabilities who are "in the crosshairs." They organized a lively demonstration at the U.S. Supreme Court in January, 1997, when the court heard two cases on doctor-assisted suicide. In wheelchairs and on crutches, and bundled up against the cold, the demonstrators held signs such as "Endangered Species" and "We Are the Target." One of their speakers, Lucy Gwin, declared: "This is not gonna happen. We're not gonna let them do this to us." Mentioning two men who already had aided suicides, she added, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna die for Jack Kevorkian or Tim Quill.... We will not go quietly.... You're not gonna herd us off one at a time quietly in little rooms. We're gonna be loud about this, because we want to live!"(11) This is the kind of approach and language that people on the left can understand.

They also can understand Nat Hentoff, the outstanding civil libertarian and author who for many years has defended people with disabilities against the onslaught of eugenics and the worship of cost-effectiveness in medicine. Hentoff isn't afraid to criticize fellow journalists for sloppy and biased reporting on end-of-life issues, and he speaks out against abortion as well as euthanasia and suicide.(12)

Red banner: 'Respect Life At All Stages,' 
with pictures of baby at top and granny at bottom

Conservatives, too, are more likely to listen to their colleagues than to their traditional opponents. It happens that some antiwar positions are essentially conservative. One of them, often unfairly called "isolationism," holds that the United States should refrain from meddling in the politics of other nations. It is based on a realistic view of history and the limits of power. It's also based on President George Washington's great Farewell Address, in which he warned against meddling abroad. Washington was no isolationist; he was pro-trade and favored good but arms-length relations with other countries. "Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations," he urged. "Cultivate peace and harmony with all.... The Great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign Nations is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible." He saw what was then our geographic isolation as a great advantage. "Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation?" he asked. "Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?"(13)

Conservatives are far more likely to listen to Washington's advice than to liberal slogans. Liberals, by the way, should also listen to Washington. Too many of them support the first stages of what seem to them grand crusades for democracy or human rights (First World War, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq), only to find that those crusades themselves involve massive violations of human rights. Especially the most basic of all rights--the right to life.

English writer Christopher Derrick was genuinely puzzled by the hawkishness of many conservatives. He noted that twentieth-century wars paved the way for the political left; for example, the Russian Revolution succeeded toward the end of the First World War, and the British first elected "a fully and solidly left-wing government" at the end of the Second World War. He added: "Portugal had three unwinnable Vietnams in Africa: their outcome was to radicalize--of all things--the Portuguese officer corps! And what did Vietnam itself do? It Communized Southeast Asia and radicalized a whole generation of American youth."(14)

One might add that wars immensely expand the power of government over the economy and over its citizens--power that conservatives traditionally and rightly fear. There were giant leaps in governmental power during the Civil War, the First World War, and the Second World War, as there have been in the current and open-ended war on terrorism. Wars often lead to enormous deficit spending and/or higher taxes, both of which are anathema to true conservatives.

Derrick also stressed that war "tends to destroy everything that conservatives would wish to 'conserve' at the social, cultural, moral, and religious levels. For the present cultural breakdown of the West, two World Wars are very considerably responsible." He added: "Soldiers on active service do not behave virtuously: it was an American writer, not some smug Limey, who said that the U.S. army turned the whole of South Vietnam into one vast brothel."(15) Vietnam also sent many U.S. soldiers home with terrible drug addictions and mental-health problems that contributed to family and societal breakdown in America.

Antiwar marchers with 'Republic/Not Empire' sign

On the death penalty, too, conservatives are more likely to listen to their own. Conservative elder statesman Richard Viguerie, for example, is a longtime opponent of capital punishment. His principal argument is religious, but he also stresses the possibilty of wrongful convictions. "The power to take life," he said recently, should not be entrusted "to secular governments run by fallible men. The death penalty presupposes a level of divine wisdom that secular governments do not possess." He also noted that conservative support for the death penalty "undermines our arguments against abortion, euthanasia, and related practices." He contended that "our loss of credibilty on life issues is not worth the (very rare) execution of a criminal."(16)

Columnist George Will, although often ambivalent about capital punishment, favorably reviewed a book that described many cases of wrongful conviction. It convinced him that "many innocent people are in prison, and some innocent people have been executed." According to Will, "Conservatives, especially, should draw this lesson from the book: Capital punishment, like the rest of the criminal justice system, is a government program, so skepticism is in order."(17)

Another conservative columnist, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., wrote that the death penalty "neither dramatizes the horror of crime nor speaks out for life. It was once thought to do both, but not in our brutal society.... In a society that exploits coarseness and violence in its entertainments--even in its advertisements--such niceties as retribution are lost." Speaking of a drug dealer who had committed one murder and ordered two others, Tyrrell said he "should remain locked away for the rest of his life and unable to kill again." In prison, Tyrrell added, the man "has a chance to atone for his wrong, and by leaving him there for the right reason America has a chance to demonstrate its reverence for freedom and for life."(18)

Ask a Great Question

Experienced lawyers know that the right question in court can turn a case in their favor. Similarly, in a dialogue on life-or-death issues, a quiet question can do much good. Generally, the goal should not be instant conversion but, rather, giving your friend something to think about.

Yet there are exceptions. Sometimes a question asked in the drama of great public debate has a major impact right away. So it was with the young John Kerry's questions to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971. A leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Kerry charged that the U.S. was continuing the war in Vietnam so it wouldn't have to admit the war was a mistake. He asked the senators: "...how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"(19)

Many death-penalty supporters say that few if any innocent people have actually been executed in the United States, at least in recent times. They may be right, although conviction overturns of people on death row due to DNA evidence give many people pause on this issue. But Rev. Lawrence Davies once framed the issue in a more personal way: "What if the one innocent person executed this year was the person you loved most dearly and deeply in all the world?"(20)

A pro-life group encouraged people to think about power issues related to abortion when it presented this quiz:

Under current U.S. law, which is not a person?

a) A Supreme Court judge

b) A corporation

c) An unborn child

Hint: Who can hire the fewest lawyers?(21)

R. Buckminster Fuller, the inventor and writer, once contemplated suicide when he faced hard times. But he asked himself, "Who am I?" He concluded that "I was an inventory of experiences. And if I did away with myself I might get rid of some connecting link of experience in the universe that would turn out to be important." He decided against self-destruction.(22)

But most people don't take such an intellectual approach to suicide. They are more likely to be distraught, like the young fisherman Mico Mór in Walter Macken's great Irish novel, Rain on the Wind. Disappointed in love, Mico took his family's boat out to sea in a raging storm: "He was going to his death," Macken wrote, "because no man or no boat could live in a sea like this." But the violence of the storm cleared Mico's head, and he thought, "What am I doing to my poor black boat.... What am I doing at all? What will happen to my father and my mother and my grandfather if I take away their livelihood...?" Those were desperate questions in the space of seconds. "And he leaned on the tiller and turned her about," bringing the boat back to shore despite the violent wind and waves.(23)

Just as a good question can start a useful train of thought, so can a good protest sign. A 2005 march against the war in Iraq included a sign with a picture of a mother and her three children and the ironic description, "Collateral Damage." The march took place just after Hurricane Katrina had devastated America's Gulf Coast; so a banner urged "Make Levees/Not War," and a sign proclaimed, "National Guard Is In Wrong Gulf!" Other signs included "War Is Terrorism/With A Bigger Budget"; "Give Peace A Lot of Chances"; and "Anything War Can Do/Peace Can Do Better." While a bit faulty in grammar, another asked an excellent question: "Who Would Jesus Bomb?"(24)

Signs at the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., have included "Stop the War on the Unborn"; "Abortion/Weapon of Mass Destruction"; "Keep the Dream Alive....Dreams Begin With Life"; "How Much Does an Abortion Cost? One Human Life"; and "Love Little Lives."(25)

Sign at March for Life: '<strong>Abortion</strong>/neat, quick 
easy way out......<strong>for Men</strong>'

Tell Survivors' Stories

The actual victims of violence, or those who have witnessed it, often have the most effective stories to tell. Their reports put a human face on the body counts.

Soon after the start of the 2001 U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan, a Washington Post reporter encountered an Afghan taxi driver in Peshawar, Pakistan. Mohammed Sardar had escaped from his devastated community near Kabul with a packet of letters addressed to world leaders. He told the Post reporter that "the people are dying and there is no one to listen to us. I must get to President Bush and the others and tell them they are making a terrible mistake." He told of a bomb that had killed an entire family in his community. "There was no sign of a home left," Sardar reported. "We just collected the pieces of bodies and buried them." Looking back on many years of war in his land, he said, "All the terror in Afghanistan has been caused by other countries. Iran, Russia, the Americans--they all gave these groups money to kill our brothers and sisters."(26)

Later another Post reporter described her visit to a hospital in Afghanistan, where she found many victims of U.S. bombing raids. In the intensive care unit, she saw patients who were "burned and bloodied, their limbs amputated." She added, "Most cannot speak; many are children who lie unconscious and bruised beneath ragged, filthy blankets." Her story was accompanied by a photo of ten-year-old Noor Mohammed in his hospital bed, with an uncle sitting beside him in grief. A bombing raid had blinded the little boy and cost him both his arms.(27)

When the U.S. bombed Baghdad in its 2003 war in Iraq, twelve-year-old Ali Ismaeel Abbas was one of the victims. He received severe burns and lost both of his arms. He also lost his mother, his father, and all his sisters and brothers (including an unborn child). A writer who interviewed Ali in the hospital found an aunt with him; the child didn't yet know that he had lost all of his immediate family.(28) There were many other civilian casualties from the U.S. bombing and occupation of Iraq. In May 2006, an Iraqi was driving his sister, Nabiha Nisaif Jassim, to a hospital to give birth to her third child. U.S. troops, who later said Jassim's brother entered a forbidden area and failed to stop despite warnings, shot and killed Jassim and a cousin who was also in the car. Jassim's brother, hurt by broken glass from the shooting, said he "was driving my car at full speed because I did not see any sign or warning from the Americans." He reported that doctors tried to save his sister's baby, but were unable to do so.(29)

Antiwar protester with sign showing mother 
and her young children, who are described as 'Collateral Damage'

Telling these stories illustrates civilian casualties in a way that statistics cannot. There are also times when it's appropriate to show someone photographs of war casualties, or of aborted children. Good judgment is essential here; people resent it when such photos are thrust upon them, or upon their children, with no warning. Perhaps the photos should be handled as pornography used to be--kept in plain brown envelopes and shown only to adults with proper warning. ("If you're willing to look at it, I'll show you a photo of a little Iraqi child that explains why I'm against the war." Or, to a state legislator: "Senator, since you're still supporting public funding of abortion, shouldn't you be willing to see the results of your votes?")

Graphic photos sometimes move people to strong efforts to end the violence they show. After Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., started speaking out against the Vietnam War in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson pressured him to back off. King, who greatly valued Johnson's support for civil rights, did back off but felt guilty about it. While waiting for a plane at the Atlanta airport in January, 1967, he happened to buy a magazine that included an article about the effects of the war on Vietnamese children. The article featured graphic photos of children with terrible wounds. King was so appalled by the photos, according to scholar Stewart Burns, that he decided to do everything he could to stop the war, "regardless of the political or personal cost."(30)

Gianna Jessen of Nashville, Tenn., is one of the rare survivors of abortion--born alive despite her teenage mother's saline abortion in the seventh month of pregnancy. The abortion resulted in cerebral palsy for Gianna, and doctors didn't think she would even be able to walk. But a determined foster mother helped her learn how; and after later surgeries, Gianna was able to leave her braces and walker behind. Despite a remaining balance problem, she ran a 26-mile marathon in 2005 at the age of 28. For many years, she has done public speaking about abortion and its effects on her. She has testified against it in congressional hearings. "The best thing I can show you to defend life," she said at a 1996 hearing, "is my life. It has been a great gift. Killing is not the answer to any question or situation. Show me how it is the answer."(31)

There are also botched executions, but no reprieves on that account; executioners just try again until the condemned are dead. Yet there are survivors of death row--people eventually freed by DNA evidence or by evidence of perjury or police/prosecutor misconduct. These people, some of whom spent many years on death row for crimes they didn't commit, make a powerful case against the death penalty. In 1998 Northwestern University law professor Lawrence Marshall brought 28 of them together in Chicago for a conference on "Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty." It wasn't just the lost part of their lives that bothered the survivors; it was also having lived under the constant, unrelenting threat of death. Joseph Burrows described what it was like to have his execution date set on three different occasions. "After a while," he remarked, "it affects you so bad that you're not the same person no more."(32) Dennis Williams, who spent 17 years on death row after a mistaken conviction, described his time there as "pure hell."(33)

Relate Stories of Those Who Turned Around

It is hard to argue with combat veterans who make a case against war by describing their own experience. Civilians tend to listen to them in respectful silence. As Veterans for Peace president David Cline has said, "...most people are subjected to propaganda, and they don't really see what goes on in war.... We, having experienced it, know what we are talking about." Disillusioned by U.S. war aims when he was a soldier in Vietnam, Cline also received three wounds there. In a foxhole fight, a young Vietnamese soldier shattered Cline's knee with a shot from an automatic weapon; almost simultaneously, Cline wounded the other soldier fatally. Later he looked "at this guy dead there, and I started to wonder if he had a girlfriend. I wondered how his mother was going to find out about this."(34)

Man with sign at antiwar march: 
'I'm a Vietnam Vet and I'm <strong>Still</strong> Against the War!'

There are now many veterans of the abortion wars, too, and some speak out strongly against that form of violence. They describe their difficulty in handling tiny body-parts; seeing aborted babies who were born alive and struggled to keep breathing, but were given no assistance; or seeing women who were badly injured by botched abortions. Some also describe terrible nightmares, long struggles with guilt, and efforts to bury guilt in alcohol and drugs. Looking back on his involvement, one ex-abortionist said he had not been "an avid abortion proponent" but, rather, "a reluctant puppet in a world gone berserk."(35)

Many governors are veterans of death-penalty decisions, and some are sorry they allowed executions to go forward. The late Governor Edmund (Pat) Brown of California saved some people from the gas chamber, but declined to save others. Looking back on his decisions at age 83, he wrote that he had wielded "an awesome, ultimate power over the lives of others that no person or government should have, or crave." And each decision, he said, "took something out of me that nothing--not family or work or hope for the future--has ever been able to replace."(36)

Former Governor George Ryan of Illinois, originally a death-penalty supporter, agonized the first time he had to decide whether to let an execution go forward. While he let the man die, he found this "the most emotional experience I have ever been through in my life" and felt that "I just couldn't do it again." Then the Chicago Tribune published a study describing many wrongful convictions in capital cases. Ryan, fearing that innocent people might be executed, imposed a moratorium on all Illinois executions and appointed a commission to study wrongful convictions. "If government can't get this right," he said later, "it ought not be in the business of passing such final, irreversible judgment." He eventually concluded that government cannot get it right. Just before he left office in 2003, Ryan commuted the sentences of all 167 people on death row in Illinois--in most cases to life in prison.(37)

Alternatives, Alternatives, Alternatives!

"Wouldn't you prefer a nonviolent solution to the problem, if one can be found?" This is a great question to ask about any life-or-death issue. It cuts right through rhetorical fog and starts people thinking about nonviolent solutions. You may find that your friend, despite having just made a passionate defense of some type of killing, will say, "Well, yeah, I guess so, if you can still preserve the lives and rights of the other people involved. But how can you do it?"

Then you explain solid, workable alternatives. You can describe the "Eden Alternative" that transforms nursing homes into real homes--with lots of children, flowers, and pets around. "Old folks," you might say, "shouldn't have to worry about spending their last years in a dreary, depressing place. The fear of that leads to many suicides. We should try to make all the nursing homes like the Garden of Eden." You can also describe programs that help people with severe mental illness hold jobs, hold their lives together, and have their own chance for the pursuit of happiness.(38)

People who care for family members with severe disabilities or terminal illness may be even more vulnerable to depression than their patients are. Volunteers in respite programs, such as those sponsored by Baptists for Life and the National Council of Catholic Women, give such family members much-needed breaks.(39) Hospice programs, when they stay true to their original mission, are a tremendous aid to the dying and their families. But some programs that use the name "hospice" don't deliver as promised. The Hospice Patients Alliance works to make them live up to their name and original mission. And many advances in pain control ease dying for both patients and families.(40)

There are pregnancy care centers and maternity homes all around the United States. The centers--usually part of a national or international network such as Birthright or Heartbeat International--offer free pregnancy tests and counseling. Most offer free maternity and baby clothes, baby formula, and/or baby furniture. Some make referrals for free or reduced-fee prenatal care, and many arrange shelter for young women abandoned by boyfriends or parents. Some offer prenatal and parenting classes. The maternity homes provide shelter and much other help for pregnant women; some provide aid for up to a year after the children are born; and some have job-training programs for single mothers. The centers and homes have already saved many lives and given new hope to countless women and couples.

Twin blue banners with butterfly picture; 
one says 'New Life,' and the other 'New Hope'

Be sure to tell your friend about the can-do people who run these centers. And if you know a young couple who are surprised by a pregnancy and don't know where to turn, refer them to one of these helplines (list updated in September, 2012):

Birthright, 800/550-4900

Care Net, (877) 791-5475

Heartbeat International, 800/712-HELP (800/712-4357)

National Life Center, 800/848-LOVE (800/848-5683)

Nurturing Network, 800/TNN-4MOM (800/866-4666)(41)

Skilled diplomats are worth far more than their weight in gold; they solve small conflicts before they become major ones and sometimes even avert war at the last moment. There's a great need for more peace-oriented people in the U.S. Foreign Service and in the diplomatic services of other nations. Some, however, may face great crises of conscience if the leaders of their countries are determined to go to war when war can be averted. Diplomats need the courage to resign in such cases--and to make their resignations count in the public debate.(42)

Roger Fisher and his colleagues of the Harvard Negotiation Project realize that people outside of government can influence diplomacy by offering creative solutions for what seem to be intractable conflicts. Their little book, Beyond Machiavelli: Tools for Coping with Conflict offers excellent suggestions for beginners. They stress the need to understand thoroughly an adversary's point of view; and they suggest that, instead of "concession hunting," it's often better for a mediator to "change the choice" by listening carefully to both sides and drafting a new plan as the basis for negotiations.(43)

Prof. Gene Sharp has devoted his life to the study and promotion of another alternative to war: the practice of "strategic nonviolent action" (also called "civilian-based defense"). Borrowing from the rich history of improvised civilian resistance, Sharp advocates planning for resistance well in advance of a coup or invasion and training civilians in specific resistance techniques. Ideally, this involves total refusal to obey orders from coup leaders or an occupying power. It may include befriending individual soldiers of the occupier and urging them to delay carrying out orders, refuse orders, or desert. It may include boycotts, huge street demonstrations, the blocking of tanks in the streets, and general strikes. Sharp emphasizes that people need not be pacifists in order to use nonviolent resistance. He once told the Boston Globe that such resistance builds "on people's capacity to be stubborn and cussed, and we're all good at that."(44)

Antiwar protester with sign: 'Anything 
War Can Do/Peace Can Do Better'

Nonviolent alternatives to the death penalty include life in prison, with no possibility of parole, for those guilty of premeditated murder. Some think parole should still be available for murderers who have made outstanding conversions and become model prisoners. I believe, though, that unelected parole boards have made too many mistakes in granting parole to murderers who have then killed again. Better to leave clemency decisions to elected governors whom voters can hold accountable.

Whether a murderer receives a true life sentence or a decades-long sentence, this should not mean minimal work and days full of watching soap operas. Rather, prisoners should do real work for real wages; but most of the money they earn should go for their upkeep and--more important--reparations to the families of their victims. There are problems in establishing prison labor programs, including worry among labor unions and small business owners about competition from cheap prison labor. Yet there are labor programs that, while not perfect, provide reparations and other worthwhile results. Death-penalty opponents should lead efforts to establish similar programs, or better programs, elsewhere. Reparations can help give families of murder victims--and people who have survived assaults, but have been traumatized by them--a chance to be whole again.(45)

If you can recruit old and new friends to help provide alternatives to violence, they may soon realize that there is enormous, life-affirming promise in the alternatives, but only negatives in violence. They may develop a deep commitment to nonviolence as public policy and as a way of life.

We Americans are often criticized by others, and rightly so, for our many faults. At the same time, though, outsiders commend us for our can-do spirit, our ability to find creative solutions for seemingly intractable problems. If we can harness this spirit to think and work our way out of violence, we will make a great gift to ourselves and to others.


1. Helen Alvare, "Communicating the Culture of Life to a Secular Culture," address at a conference in Washington, D.C., 24 March 2000, transcript, 3. For many years, Alvare was chief spokeswoman of the U.S. Catholic bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.

2. W. B. Yeats, "Easter 1916," in his The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1956), 177-80, 179.

3. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in Stewart Burns, To the Mountaintop (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 15.

4. Norma McCorvey with Gary Thomas, Won by Love (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997).

5. Judith Fetrow, quoted in Mary Meehan, "The Ex-abortionists: Why They Quit," Human Life Review 26, nos. 2/3 (Spring/Summer 2000), 7-28, 21. A slightly different version of the article appears on www.meehanreports.com.

6. Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking (New York: Random House, 1993), 108-109, 118-19, 131-40, 166-68, 223-41 (quotation from p. 229).

7. U.S. Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Hearing on Nomination of David H. Souter to Be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, 101st Cong., 2nd sess., Sept. 1990, 270.

8. See Mike W. Perry, "The Sound of the Machine," The Freeman 38, no. 7 (July 1988), 257-62, on the Nazis and abortion.

9. Nicole M. Callahan, "Revolution on Campus" and "Seeds of Change at Georgetown," American Feminist, Summer/Fall 2004, 3-14; and www.feministsforlife.org.

10. Wesley J. Smith, Forced Exit (New York: Times Books/Random House, 1997), 9-10.

11. Quoted in Mary Meehan, "Handicapped to Court: 'We Want to Live,'" National Catholic Register, 19-25 Jan. 1997, 1 & 11.

12. See Nat Hentoff's 1983-84 series of Village Voice articles on Baby Doe cases, reprinted in Human Life Review 10, no. 2 (Spring 1984), 73-104; his "You Don't Have to Believe in God to Be Prolife," U.S. Catholic, March 1989, 28-30; and his Nov.-Dec. 2003 Village Voice articles on Terri Schiavo, reprinted in Human Life Review 29, no. 4 (Fall 2003), 80-89.

13. George Washington,"Farewell Address," 19 Sept. 1796, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931-44), vol. 35, 231, 233 & 234. (In the first sentence quoted, I have spelled out the abbreviated "towds.")

14. Christopher Derrick, "Bombs and Babies: Three Baffling Questions," New Oxford Review, Sept. 1981, 2-3, 3.

15. Ibid.

16. Richard A. Viguerie, Conservatives Betrayed (Los Angeles: Bonus Books, 2006), 96-97.

17. George F. Will, "Innocent on Death Row," Washington Post, 6 April 2000, A-23. He was reviewing Barry Scheck and others, Actual Innocence (New York: Doubleday/Random House, 2000).

18. R. emmett Tyrrell, Jr., "Death Penalty Interregnum," Washington Times, 12 Dec. 2000, A-21.

19. U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearing on Legislative Proposals Relating to the War in Southeast Asia, 92nd Cong., 1st sess., April-May 1971, 183. Kerry is now a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts.

20. Lawrence A. Davies, "Unto the Least of These," theOtherSide, Sept. 1982, 15-16, 16.

21. Equal Rights: Or How Society Protects Almost Each and Every Person (Minneapolis: SOUL, n.d.), 12.

22. Quoted in Martin Weil, "R. Buckminster Fuller Dies at 87 of Heart Attack," Washington Post, 3 July 1983, B-6.

23. Walter Macken, Rain on the Wind (New York: Macmillan, 1950), 304-12.

24. Photographs of 24 Sept. 2005 antiwar march, Washington, D.C., by the author.

25. Photographs of March for Life, Washington, D.C., in January of 1988, 1992, 2003, & 2005, by the author.

26. Pamela Constable, "Plaintive Afghan's Plea from Community: Stop the Bombing," Washington Post, 24 Oct. 2001, A-6.

27. Susan B. Glasser, "At Hospital, Villagers Tell of U.S. Bombing," ibid., 5 Dec. 2001, A-17.

28. Philip Kennicott, "In Broken Baghdad, Photo Negatives," ibid., 15 April 2003, C-1 & C-4; Patrick McDowell, "Iraqi Boy Burned in U.S. Bombing Gets Surgery," ibid., 17 April 2003, A-26; and Jon Lee Anderson, "War Wounds," New Yorker, 14 April 2003, 46-51, 49-50.

29. Kim Gamel, "U.S. Troops Kill Pregnant Woman in Iraq," 31 May 2006, abcnews.go.com.

30. Burns (n. 3), 302-05; and Benjamin Spock and William F. Pepper, Special Report on "The Children of Vietnam," Ramparts, Jan. 1967, 44-68.

31. Amy White, "Abortion Survivor to Tell Story at Rally," Modesto Bee, 15 Jan. 2005, www.modbee.com; Kathrin Chavez, "Faith to the Finish Line," 20 May 2005, www.tennessean.com; and U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Hearing on Origins and Scope of Roe v. Wade, 104th Cong., 2nd sess., 22 April 1996, 28-33, 29.

32. Quoted in Don Terry, "Survivors Make the Case Against Death Row," New York Times, 16 Nov. 1998, A-14.

33. Ibid.; and Dennis Williams, quoted in John McCormick, "The Wrongly Condemned," Newsweek, 9 Nov. 1998.

34. David Cline, "A Responsibility to My People," interview by Daniel Redwood, posted 17 Sept. 2004 on www.veteransforpeace.org (see "VFP In the News").

35. McArthur Hill, quoted in Meehan (n. 5),18.

36. Edmund (Pat) Brown with Dick Adler, Public Justice, Private Mercy (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989), 163.

37. Bruce Shapiro, "A Talk with Governor George Ryan," The Nation, 8 & 15 Jan. 2001, 17; Kari Lydersen, "Death Penalty Foes See Progress in Ill.," Washington Post, 11 March 2002, A-2; Robert E. Pierre and Kari Lydersen, "Illinois Death Row emptied," ibid., 12 Jan. 2003, A-1 & A-11; and Lee Hockstader, "Off Ill. Death Row, to a Rougher Place," ibid., 17 Jan. 2003, A-3.

38. William H. Thomas, Life Worth Living: How Someone You Love Can Still Enjoy Life in a Nursing Home (Acton, Mass.: VanderWyk & Burnham, 1996); www.edenalt.com; and Jay Neugeboren, Transforming Madness: New Lives for People Living with Mental Illness (New York: Morrow, 1999).

39. See www.bfl.org (go to "Services/LIFT") and www.nccw.org (see "Publications" for respite program manual, video, & brochure).

40. See www.hospicepatients.org.; Eric M. Chevlen and Wesley J. Smith, Power Over Pain: How to Get the Pain Control You Need (Steubenville, Ohio: International Task Force, 2002), available through www.internationaltaskforce.org.; and Beth Baker, "Finally (or Not), Relief," Washington Post, "Health" section, 26 Aug. 2003, F-1 & F-5, (about an outstanding palliative care program).

41. All of these groups have web sites: www.birthright.org; www.care-net.org and www.pregnancydecisionline.org; www.heartbeatinternational.org; www.nationallifecenter.com; and www.nurturingnetwork.org.

42. Eugene J. McCarthy, "A Good and Becoming Exit," The Hard Years (New York: Viking, 1975), 100-03; Felicity Barringer, "U.S. Diplomat Resigns, Protesting 'Our Fervent Pursuit of War,'" New York Times, 27 Feb. 2003, A-13; and "Another U.S. Diplomat Quits Over Iraq Policy," Washington Post, 11 March 2003, A-16.

43. Roger Fisher and others, Beyond Machiavelli: Tools for Coping with Conflict (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994).

44. Quoted in Nina McCain, "Preaching the Power of Nonviolent Force," Boston Sunday Globe, 18 Dec. 1983, A-14. Gene Sharp's prolific writing includes The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973, 3 vols.) and Civilian-Based Defense (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990).

45. Prison labor is a longstanding and difficult problem, one that needs more attention from people with good heads as well as good hearts. For varying views, see: Paul W. Valentine, "Productive Program in MD Prisons," Washington Post, 22 March 1999, B-1& B-4; Mary Bosworth, The U.S. Federal Prison System (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2002), 13-14 & 147-52; Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen C. Richards, Behind Bars: Surviving Prison (Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2002), 103-06, 138-39 & 148; and Kristen Bailey, ed., How Should Prisons Treat Inmates? (Detroit: Greenhaven Press/Thomson Gale, 2005), 50-72.