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Everyday Activism


Robert A. Destro

Last May, doctor-assisted suicide emerged “as the most controversial cultural issue” in Gallup’s 2011 Values and Beliefs poll. The issue divided Americans, as 45 percent found it morally acceptable while 48 percent found it morally wrong. Also in 2011, Gallup found that half of American adults consider abortion to be morally wrong with even less support for laws “allowing pharmacists and health providers to opt out of providing medicine or surgical procedures that result in abortion.” How is it possible that more people are not opposed to these practices after nearly 40 years of organized, pro-life political activism at the local, state and national levels?

An everyday activist can help others withstand the societal pressures that lead people to have abortions, to abandon sick and elderly loved ones in nursing homes, or to vote for laws that do not respect the dignity of human life.

If we hope to change more hearts, we need to look at these and other pro-life issues through what Dewitt Jones, a National Geographic photographer and speaker, calls “a new lens,” which enables individuals “to look at the ordinary and see the extraordinary.” This process of discerning the needs and potential of others is what Jones calls “everyday creativity.”

Applied to the pro-life movement, we might call this “everyday activism.” For most people, activism is political. But everyday activism is personal and local. An everyday activist will learn as much as possible about themselves and the personalities of family members, friends and neighbors. An everyday activist learns how humans grow, how we develop, how we learn and process information, and how we decline and die. With this knowledge — and the wisdom it imparts — it is possible to help others withstand the societal pressures that lead people to have abortions, to abandon sick and elderly loved ones in nursing homes, or to vote for laws that do not respect the dignity of human life.

Consider patients who have what neuroscientists call “acquired brain injuries,” from elderly people with some forms of dementia to injured soldiers. Caused by trauma, stroke, disease or substance abuse, these injuries are more common than people realize, and depression and thoughts of suicide are significant problems among those who have suffered them. A lack of companionship, rehabilitation or treatment — or financial support from insurance companies — makes patients with these injuries likely candidates for doctor-assisted suicide and euthanasia.

At the same time, neuroscience shows that the brain is plastic, that it has the ability to rewire itself to compensate for injuries if a rehabilitation program stimulates the brain around the injured area. The elderly, who may be lonely and depressed because their friends are gone and their families live far away, often begin to recover if neighbors visit regularly and see that their needs are being met. In short, pro-life advocates can do a great deal of good if they are willing to step into the breach.

Pro-life activism comes in many forms, but the most fruitful activism takes place during our interactions with family members, friends, neighbors, parishioners, customers and business partners. We become everyday activists whenever we use knowledge and skills to help others, even if we think of ourselves only as friends and volunteers.

From the perspective of everyday creativity, any concerned citizen can be an activist. A stay-at-home mother might devote her spare time to taking a census of the homebound residents throughout her neighborhood, or a retiree might visit a local nursing home with his grandchildren to ensure that no one is deprived of “the human element” that science confirms is so essential to healing and mental health.

We must not forget that all politics is local and that Jesus built his Church from the ground up. If we want poll numbers to change, each of our friends and neighbors needs to hear the Gospel of Life “in his own native language” (Acts 2:8), and it is our obligation to teach it in all that we say and do. When we spread this Gospel as everyday activists, we can transform the world.

ROBERT A. DESTRO is a professor of law and director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion at the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America. He is a member of Potomac Council 433 in Washington, D.C.