By Jim Towey
I was at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994 when Mother Teresa told the thousands in attendance — including the president and first lady, Bill and Hillary Clinton — that abortion was the greatest destroyer of peace in the world. Echoing her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech 15 years earlier, she asked, “If we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?”
Some attendees at the breakfast in Washington, D.C., sat in frozen silence as she delivered her speech, only a few feet from the Clintons. Others interrupted her remarks with prolonged applause. The ballroom was as divided on the subject of abortion that morning as the country is today.
If she were alive today, Mother Teresa would have rejoiced in the news that the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade had been overturned. She believed all life is sacred because of the divine imprint it bears. As she said during her prayer breakfast speech in 1994, “That unborn child has been carved in the hand of God from conception and is called by God to love and be loved.”
Human laws, human hearts
But Mother Teresa would have also recognized that a culture of life does not depend on human laws as much as on human hearts willing to care for those in need. She knew that if communities did not treat women facing difficult, if not unbearable, financial and social circumstances with more compassion, many of them would continue to have recourse to abortion, legal or not. Mother was emphatically pro-life, and she was equally determined to defend the poor — and most especially poor women. In fact, barely five miles from the Washington hotel where she spoke so forcefully, her Missionaries of Charity ran a home where they cared for pregnant women and their children. Mother knew that to protect life, it wasn’t enough to oppose abortion; you had to provide a viable alternative.
The Knights of Columbus is doing just that. Its ongoing charitable work to help young mothers choose life and care for their newborns, boosted by the new ASAP (Aid and Support After Pregnancy) program, is the same “love in action” that Mother Teresa displayed throughout her life. By assisting pregnancy resource centers and maternity homes, Knights are following in Mother’s footsteps.
A third path
Much of the public today does not know how to balance the rights of nascent human life with those of the anguished mother. Political battle lines have been drawn in response to the high court’s decision. However, what is needed from both sides is a comprehensive plan to spare women the agonizing decision between terminating a pregnancy or bearing a child she cannot care for.
When I ran Florida’s health and human services agency in the early 1990s, I oversaw a system with 10,000 foster kids, and I saw the supports needed for at-risk mothers to thrive: stable housing, access to medical care and mental health services, affordable childcare, and education and training programs tailored to their needs. Such initiatives aren’t cheap or easy to provide. Citizen involvement is critical, whether that means volunteering to mentor at after-school programs, supporting faith-based partnerships with government, promoting adoption alternatives, or campaigning for candidates, at all levels of government, who are willing to prioritize interventions that give at-risk moms a fighting chance.
Across America and around the world, there are pregnant women hungering for accompaniment, children thirsting to be fostered, childcare and after-school programs starved for volunteers, and emergency shelters for families craving capacity and funds.
At the prayer breakfast, Mother Teresa invited us all to unite in common cause. “Let us make that one point — that no child will be unwanted, unloved, uncared for, or killed and thrown away,” she said. “And give until it hurts — with a smile.”
Her appeal has an even greater urgency today. There is work to be done, ASAP.
(This commentary was originally published in the September 2022 edition of Columbia magazine. Jim Towey is the author of To Love and Be Loved: A Personal Portrait of Mother Teresa, published by Simon & Schuster.)