"Henry Hyde was one of my heroes," House Minority Leader John Boehner told a crowd on a rooftop in Washington, D.C., over a month after the historic vote on health-care legislation in the House of Representatives.
Receiving from a pro-life group an award named after Hyde, the late Illinois congressman legendary for his opposition to abortion, Boehner shared emotional memories of his large family and his humble upbringing, and delivered a passionate reminder of the stakes involved in the fight for human life.
Boehner's comments at the event echoed his remarks from a few years ago, at Hyde's memorial in 2007. There, Boehner remembered his longtime colleague: "Henry was at peace in the presence of others -- even those who disagreed with him most -- because of his unshakeable faith in the sanctity of every human life. In a vocation often marked by senseless, noisy debate, Henry Hyde was a clear, calm and commanding voice for justice; for the defenseless; for the innocent."
The health-care bill that passed this year was opposed by the nation's Catholic bishops, despite the bishops' stated desires for "universal" health care. It was opposed because on life there can be no compromise. Boehner knows this, and he's not giving up. "We may have lost the battle," he said at his award ceremony, "but we will not lose the war."
Joining him at the ceremony, held by Americans United For Life, was another Republican congressman, Chris Smith of New Jersey. Smith is a great defender of human life, here and abroad. He doesn't always vote along party lines on some other issues, but he's garnered a great deal of respect nonetheless. Also there was Daniel Lipinski, a Democrat from Illinois, who was the only pro-life member of his party left standing firmly against the health-care legislation in March.
The AUL event could very easily have been a continuation of another celebration I attended earlier in the week. There was an ecumenical, bipartisan gathering at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City in honor of the late John Cardinal O'Connor. O'Connor's moral voice from that Fifth Avenue pulpit frequently had something to offer by way of guidance and rebuke to the politics of his day. But it was never confused for partisanship, and it continues to be a challenge to all parties.
Perhaps O'Connor's most palpable legacy was the establishment of the Sisters of Life, a religious order of women who protect and defend human life through prayer and service. They take in women and their children, and minister to people suffering from the consequences of abortion. Pregnant women frequently come to the Sisters after referrals by pregnancy-care centers, priests, or women who have previously been served by the Sisters. The Sisters of Life help form the backbone of the pro-life movement.
The Sisters were part of a coalition of Catholic religious orders that issued a statement in opposition to the final health-care legislation in the House. The statement read, in part: "Protection of life and freedom of conscience are central to morally responsible judgment. We join the bishops in seeking ethically sound legislation."
After the vote, Lipinski told a hometown columnist, "I could not vote for a bill that would change the status quo on funding for abortion." His honesty and clarity on the details and principles helped him be honest about other problems with the legislation, too. "There were aspects of the president's package that I liked. Helping people get insurance, that sort of thing. But we weren't really voting for health reform. We were voting for a bill that is financially unsustainable. And I couldn't support that bill," he said.
At the O'Connor celebration, Helen Alvare, a law professor who has worked with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops helping to direct its pro-life campaign, credited the late cardinal with "enable[ing] the pro-life movement to survive and to thrive" through his leadership and encouragement at a time "when we felt outspent and overpowered."
In the wake of the passage of that health-care legislation, it's a familiar feeling. But the "strictly non-partisan," as Alvare described it, message of Cardinal O'Connor, along with his living legacy -- the work and the prayers of the women of the Sisters of Life -- should serve as inspiration to Boehner and Lipinski and every Catholic and other American legislator, activist and voter discouraged by our culture's deepening embrace of death and despair. For a movement is kept viable in no small part through leadership.